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Ontario Greenbelt: Farms dot the landscape below the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment in Halton Region.

The Ontario government is standing by proposals that could allow it to force local conservation authorities to approve developments in environmentally sensitive or flood-prone areas, even as critics warn the changes will gut long-standing ecological protections and indirectly harm the province’s Greenbelt.

David Crombie, the former Toronto mayor and federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, resigned his post as chairman of the province’s advisory Greenbelt Council on the weekend in protest, calling the government’s changes “high-level bombing.” Six other members, half of the remaining council, have since followed suit.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, who announced $30-million to restore and create new wetlands on Monday, said the province’s watersheds would still be protected under the new rules and that the Greenbelt area, which shields an arc of farmland, forests and wetlands across Ontario from development, would remain protected.

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But he also accused Mr. Crombie and the rest of the resigning Greenbelt Council members of failing to come up with a plan to boost the quality and size of the Greenbelt – an allegation Mr. Crombie rejects as untrue, saying the council was never asked to draft such a plan.

“It’s a kind of a cheap deflection,” Mr. Crombie said in an interview. “Meanwhile, if the bill goes forward, real damage will be done.”

Mr. Crombie said 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.

Mr. Crombie did say the minister mentioned the idea of expanding the Greenbelt in passing months ago. But he said the council told Mr. Clark there needed to be “open and public discussion” on the criteria for any expansion. For example, Mr. Crombie said, any expansion should not be achieved by allowing the swapping of land inside the Greenbelt for lands now outside it.

Pamela Blais, an urban planner and consultant who was among those who resigned their Greenbelt Council seats in protest, said she was “puzzled” by the minister’s remarks. She said the council was not formally asked to draft an expansion plan.

“It’s just not good policy,” she said of the changes to the powers of conservation authorities. “It was so much out of the realm of good policy that I could not in all good conscience stay there.”

Adam Wilson, a spokesman for Mr. Clark, later said in an e-mail the minister had raised the idea of expanding the Greenbelt multiple times, but that the council “repeatedly focused on matters not directly pertaining to the Greenbelt” such as the changes to conservation authorities.

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The Greenbelt Council members resigned after the PC government added new clauses to its budget bill outlining the conservation-authority changes on Friday.

The new wording would force conservation authorities to issue permits for developments they oppose, in cases where the Minister of Municipal Affairs has issued a ministerial zoning order (MZO) to approve a project. (Mr. Crombie and the resigning Greenbelt Council members also cited concerns over the government’s increasing use of MZOs to allow developers to skip the normal approvals process.)

Conservation authorities could impose conditions on the permits they are forced to issue, requiring mitigation measures such as flood protections or the creation of a new wetland to replace one being destroyed. But those conditions can be appealed to the minister, who can override them, and to the province’s land-use tribunal.

The chairwoman of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Peel Regional Councillor Jennifer Innis, said in an open letter that the move unveiled suddenly on Friday had her questioning her lifelong allegiance to the PC Party.

Conservation Ontario, a body that represents the province’s 36 conservation authorities, said some of the proposed amendments could prevent watersheds from being managed holistically, leading to approval of projects that could affect flooding and drinking water quality. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which represents most municipalities across the province, has asked that the government withdraw or delay the changes.

The Opposition NDP accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of launching a “sneak attack” on the environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding in Question Period on Monday, Mr. Ford pointed out the previous Liberal government had altered the Greenbelt’s boundaries 17 times, and repeated his pledge not to touch it.

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The government has been dogged by the Greenbelt issue before. Mr. Ford was forced to backtrack during the 2018 election campaign after being caught on tape promising to hand parts of the Greenbelt to developers. The government was also forced to scrap legislation it proposed last year that could have opened parts of the Greenbelt to development.

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