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Ontario conservationists are criticizing recommended changes to Greenbelt protections, saying they don’t go far enough to prohibit development.

The province is proposing the addition of 13 urban river valleys to the Greenbelt, a horseshoe-shaped swath of protected farmland, wetlands and watersheds around Toronto. The plan, released by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on Thursday, follows significant public consultation a year ago on efforts to expand the Greenbelt to shield more green space from being developed.

The Greenbelt currently includes over 800,000 hectares of land and extends 325 kilometres from the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine to the Niagara River.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government had initially said it was interested in expanding the Greenbelt to include the Paris Galt Moraine, which provides drinking water to Guelph and surrounding municipalities.

But the ministry said in a decision, also released on Thursday, that it is holding off on adding the moraine to the Greenbelt after hearing concerns from area developers and municipalities about the impact doing so could have on accommodating more people in the region.

“More time is needed to understand how the proposed addition of the Paris Galt Moraine to the Greenbelt may impact the priority to create housing and jobs,” the ministry said in the decision.

The 13 river valley areas now being considered for protection would only be shielded from development on publicly owned land, not private property. The province did not respond on Friday to requests for details on the amount of land from the river valleys that would be added to the Greenbelt.

The Ontario Greenbelt Alliance said in a statement that municipalities and conservation authorities already protect most of those public areas against development.

Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray, who serves on the alliance’s steering committee, said the recommended changes won’t protect sensitive forest areas.

“The reality on the ground is destruction, and we have these paper tiger protections looking to balance that in some way,” he said. “It will exclude all of the private land that actually is susceptible to development.”

Provincial officials are accepting feedback on the recommended changes and continuing to take suggestions on future Greenbelt expansion until April 23. The ministry has noted that none of the changes under consideration would remove protections from land already in the Greenbelt.

Mr. Gray said the province is not acting on several recommendations that were brought forward by the public during the consultation period last year. Aside from the lack of protection for the Paris Galt Moraine, he said, many advocates are dismayed that there has been no move to include Carruthers Creek and Duffins Creek in the Greenbelt. More than 6,150 comments were sent in during the public consultation process.

“I think it shows they are not serious about meaningful Greenbelt expansion,” Mr. Gray said. “They haven’t brought forward any of the other areas that the public in large numbers have recommended.”

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called the government’s proposal “disappointing.” He added that the plan would not do enough to protect the environment and ensure no harm is done to critical sources of drinking water. He also pointed to Premier Doug Ford’s plans to build Highway 413, which would pave over some Greenbelt land.

“Mr. Ford clearly told the people of Ontario today that his sprawl agenda is more important than protecting wetlands, farmland and the places we love,” Mr. Schreiner said. “Actions speak louder than words and this government is proving, yet again, it does not want to protect the integrity of the Greenbelt.

Seven Greenbelt Council members resigned at the end of 2020 in opposition to legislation that forces local conservation authorities to approve developments in environmentally sensitive or flood-prone areas in cases where a ministerial zoning order has been issued by the government.

The legislation doesn’t apply to lands protected by the Greenbelt, but the council argued the conservation-authority changes would effectively spell the end of proper planning to preserve watersheds, and that allowing development on wetlands outside the Greenbelt would degrade those inside it.

The Ontario government has been met with pushback on the Greenbelt issue previously. Mr. Ford backtracked during the 2018 provincial election campaign after an audio recording captured him promising to hand parts of the Greenbelt to developers. After public outcry in 2019, his government scrapped legislation it proposed that could have opened parts of the Greenbelt to development.

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