Province orders conservation authorities to drop wetlands mapping plans

The Ontario government has ordered three conservation authorities in the eastern part of the province to suspend plans for updated wetlands mapping after some landowners complained the process caught them by surprise.

One of the conservation authorities had appeared to cite new provincial regulations as an impetus for the project.

But in an emailed statement to CBC last week, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources said mapping updates were never the intention of the regulatory changes.

The province has therefore instructed the Rideau Valley, South Nation and Raisin River conservation authorities to "permanently stop" their implementation plans regarding wetland policy and mapping updates, the ministry said.

'All of this happened pretty quickly'

Richard Lafontaine is one of the concerned landowners.

The retiree's South Dundas property includes his house and an adjoining forest he calls "Wonderland." He likes to sit by the forest edge on tree stumps and listen to the birds over a cup of morning coffee.

Lafontaine said a neighbour recently showed him an online mapping tool from the South Nation Conservation Authority (SNC), which has jurisdiction over Lafontaine's area when it comes to protecting wetlands.

He says the proposed map would have designated much of his property as wetlands.

"There's nothing here for wetland," he said. "1,000 per cent."

Richard Lafontaine South Dundas property July 3, 2024
Lafontaine calls the wooded forest next to house 'Wonderland' and says it is not wetland. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The conservation authorities held some public meetings about the proposed updated mapping last month.

But Lafontaine said he didn't receive a letter or any other direct outreach from the SNC.

"All of this happened pretty quickly," he said.

All three conservation authorities declined to be interviewed.

The authorities directed CBC to notices they posted online indicating that further public meetings were being paused, that they appreciated the feedback and they support the direction they received from ministry "giving us time to work on a local approach."

Raisin River Conservation Authority wetlands mapping project website banner image July 3, 2024
Raisin River Conservation Authority and two other conservation authorities recently paused future public meetings about the updated wetlands mapping. (Raisin River Conservation Authority)

The authorities will work with the ministry, municipalities and landowners to develop the local approach "over the coming months" and information sessions will be rescheduled at a later date, according to the updates.

CBC asked the authorities how that language squares with the ministry's desire to see the plans permanently stopped. The SNC provided a June 25 letter from the ministry which calls it an "interim pause."

On Friday, however, a ministry spokesperson confirmed via email: "It is to be permanently stopped."

Consultation promotion 'insufficient': councillor

No matter what comes next, Lafontaine has not been alone in his criticism of the authorities' approach so far.

In a June 24 newsletter to her Orléans South-Navan constituents, Ottawa city councillor Catherine Kitts wrote that many were unaware of the wetland mapping meetings "until recently." She called the promotion of the consultation "insufficient."

The SNC gave notices to various municipalities, First Nations and local agricultural organizations but did not distribute letters out of respect for property owners' existing development rights, according to an SNC FAQ document.

Conservation authorities jurisdiction map
These are the three conservation authorities that had been working on updated wetlands mapping. (Rideau Valley Conservation Authority)

Jeff Bogaerts, the president of the Ontario Landowners Association, said the episode caused landowners to worry about new wetlands designations potentially limiting what they can develop on their land and sending their property values plummeting.

"Are you going to compensate me for the loss of the use and my land value if you do and end up on my property and you do find a wetland?" he said.

How did we get here?

In its message about the cancelled public meetings, the Raisin River Conservation Authority (RRCA) pointed to Ontario regulation 41/24, a recently passed regulation under the Conservation Authorities Act that took effect on April 1.

"To achieve consistency across the province," that new regulation expanded conservation authorities' oversight to include all wetlands, according to SNC's FAQ.

Updates were also made requiring conservation authorities to regulate and prohibit development within 30 metres of all wetlands, instead of a previous buffer that prohibited development within 120 metres of a provincially significant wetlands or wetlands greater than two hectares in size.

Richard Lafontaine at South Dundas home July 3, 2024
Lafontaine sits at the edge of his backyard forest. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Some groups saw the new regulation as weakening the ability of conservation authorities to protect wetlands and water quality, said Kristi Ross, a lawyer specializing in environmental law.

At the same time, the new buffer applies to wetlands that are "broader in their definition than just a provincially significant wetland," according to Ross.

"That would include all wetlands, including local wetlands. And I think perhaps that's the controversy you're seeing around concern related to this new wetland mapping," she said.

SNC wants to confirm wetland boundaries on site, according to Kitts and Bogaerts.

But Lafontaine said he's not prepared right now let them on his property, not after what he considered a secretive consultation process.

"They made some big mistakes," he said.