Federal government steps into Greenbelt debate, launching study that could delay some development

Federal government steps into Greenbelt debate, launching study that could delay some development

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The federal government is launching an environmental study of Rouge National Urban Park to better understand the impacts of housing developments planned by the Ford government in the surrounding Greenbelt, the Star has learned.

The study, which would assess the park’s biodiversity, ecological connectivity and other natural features, could delay development of the Duffins Rouge Agriculture Preserve — a 4,700-acre tract of land immediately adjacent to Rouge park, which was opened up as part of the province’s controversial Greenbelt land swap in November.

Last fall, Parks Canada — which oversees the Rouge Park — criticized the Doug Ford government’s decision to open up adjacent land in a letter, saying the decision was made without consultation and could cause “irreversible harm” to wildlife, including endangered species.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault will be in Markham on Tuesday to announce that he has asked the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to conduct the study alongside Parks Canada and the federal environment department. The study is not a federal impact assessment, which is normally applied to infrastructure projects such as Highway 413.

Speaking to reporters in Vaughan, Premier Doug Ford says he has “no problem” with Guilbeault’s move because the park won’t affect the province’s plans for expanding housing construction.

“It’s really adjacent and isn’t it great that we can build a community and people can go there and walk through these parks,” said Ford.

“So I have no problem with that. (It) shouldn’t slow down our development plans. But good luck to him (Guilbeault) and we’re going to build a beautiful community there,” he said.

Guilbeault’s office has been swamped with expressions of concerns over Ford’s Greenbelt plans and its impacts, including on threatened species. The minister has previously invoked the federal Species at Risk Act as a powerful regulatory tool, a law that provides avenues for the federal government to pull rank to protect critical habitats for at-risk wildlife on what is otherwise provincial land.

When the Ford government announced it was opening up parts of the Greenbelt for housing construction, it gave developers a deadline of 2025 to get shovels in the ground, with approvals in progress by the end of 2023. Its goal is to build 1.5 million homes over the next decade, and it promised to swap the lands for new, bigger protected areas — ones environmental groups have said are far less ecological valuable.

The full scope of the study will be announced by Guilbeault at a news conference at the Park at 1 pm. Broadly, it will look at how to protect biodiversity, natural resources and ecological connectivity through the park, and will consult with the public, Indigenous groups and others.

In January, Guilbeault hinted at the federal intervention on the Greenbelt, but offered few details of how it would occur. Liberal MPs have also spoken out about the province’s decision to open up environmentally sensitive lands, saying the federal government should step in if any of the proposed developments touch federal jurisdiction.

Ford has always maintained the proposed Greenbelt developments are in the province’s sole jurisdiction.

At COP15, the major international United Nations nature conference held in Montreal last December, Guilbeault was repeatedly asked what he would do about provinces that lag behind the country as a whole in meeting the federal protected areas targets, and in particular about Ontario. Guilbeault was a key player at the conference in creating a global pact to protect 30 per cent of every country’s land and water by 2030.

“We are having very serious conversations with the government of Ontario and other governments in the country,” Guilbeault said at the time. “If we need to use our regulatory tools because provinces don’t do what they’re supposed to do when it comes to protecting nature or protecting species, we will.”

With files from Robert Benzie

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