The Globe and Mail - John Barber - November 17, 2001 - A26

Oak Ridges protection bill written in sand


It's a dirty job, but somebody has to look this Oak Ridges gift horse in the mouth.

Given the adulatory reception that greeted the moraine-protection package when Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson unveiled it earlier this month, most environmentalists and opposition politicians won't say a word against it. But a few who have actually studied the bill, which could become law as early as next week, have begun to shout alarms.

The proposed legislation is "a bill without integrity," according to Josh Matlow of the environmental group
Earthroots, which has begun a lobbying and door-knocking campaign to demand major changes. "It's not really a conservation bill at all," he complained. "It's more of a political tactic."

He advises his colleagues "to put the champagne on ice for awhile, " at least until the details of the package can be aired -- and perhaps amended -- in the legislature.

Most environmentalists have already popped the corks and drained the magnums dry, of course, delighted to
have secured such an unexpected victory. In the course of a few years, the government veered from defiant
refusal to protect any part of the moraine to special legislation that puts more than 90 per cent of the
160-kilometre- long land mass off limits to development. But some seasoned campaigners share Mr. Matlow's
scepticism.

One of them is Mike Colle, the Liberal MPP who led the fight to protect the moraine. "In essence," he said, "this is a temporary plan that can be ripped up and altered whenever the [Municipal Affairs] minister feels like doing it, and you won't find out about that until after it's happened."

The main focus of concern is language that allows the minister to revoke any part of the plan -- or the entire
thing -- by simple regulation. That means no hearings, no new legislation, no consultations, just a simple fiat
followed by notice in the official gazette.

Considering the fuss many environmentalists made about an earlier proposal, which would open the plan up for review every 10 years, the silence that has greeted this far larger loophole is remarkable. "Why would you not want at least to take that ability to revoke out of the bill?" Mr. Colle asked, slightly exasperated by the current love-in. "That's what astonishes me."

The legislation also gives the minister the power to alter the boundaries of the protected areas (although not to
diminish their total area), and it allows new gravel pits on many otherwise protected areas -- a loophole that
local residents found especially irksome during public hearings earlier this fall.

The most mysterious and potentially controversial aspect of the package is the land swaps engineered by David Crombie, which levered three of the biggest developers off the moraine and compensated them with thousands of acres of developable lands in North Pickering.

"They went to the roulette wheel and they lost," Mr. Colle complained. "Now we as taxpayers are expected to
recompense them."

The government realizes that most citizens, grateful to see the developers moved off, are willing to wink at the
deals. Since the value of public lands traded off probably measures in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it's
worrisome that we still know so little about the deals. "It's all going to be done in a schmoozy backroom,"
according to Mr. Colle. "There's not a single piece of paper on it."

The fact that the bill is written in sand is the major immediate concern. Mr. Colle is pushing for public hearings
that would permit legislators to strengthen the bill by making it tamper-proof.

As it stands, the bill and the plan represent a great victory for conservationists and urbanists alike. But the
provisions that allow the minister to trash the whole thing without notice could easily exhaust all the good faith
a grateful public has so far extended.