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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 backing off from key provisions in a bill introduced late last year that would have allowed local municipalities to open up the province’s protected Greenbelt for development while sidestepping laws protecting drinking water.

Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, announced on Twitter on Wednesday that the government would withdraw the provisions, introduced in December as part of the government’s omnibus Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act.

Under the bill’s Schedule 10, municipalities would have been allowed to pass what have been referred to as open-for-business bylaws meant to speed up approvals for new factories or subdivisions by circumventing a long list of provincial legislation, including the Greenbelt Act and the Clean Water Act. The bylaws could have been passed with no public consultations, but were subject to the approval of the minister.

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The proposal raised immediate alarms with environmentalists, who warned the bill would spell the end of the Greenbelt and began mounting a campaign against the idea. Several mayors of municipalities along the Greenbelt quickly announced they would never invoke the bill’s powers.

While Mr. Clark said from the beginning that he would never have approved a proposal that encroached on the Greenbelt, his assurances did little to mollify his critics. On Wednesday, his Twitter account and his office confirmed the government was backing down.

“The use of this tool would never be approved at the expense of the Greenbelt or other provincial interests like water quality or public health and safety,” Mr. Clark said in a statement on his Twitter account. “However, our Government for the People has listened to the concerns raised by MPPs, municipalities and stakeholders … and when the legislature returns in February, we will not proceed with Schedule 10 of the Bill.”

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Clark went on to say that the government’s environmental plan “committed to strong enforcement action to protect our lakes, waterways and groundwater from pollution.” But he also said that “there is too much red tape and it can take years for businesses to navigate the development approvals process.”

Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, which had been spearheading a campaign against the bill, said the government clearly saw its position was untenable. He said his organization had delivered thousands of lawn signs and that municipal opposition to the bill was “overwhelming.” The Ontario Federation of Agriculture also recently voiced its opposition.

Plus, the government repeatedly insisted it would not touch the Greenbelt, even though the legislation explicitly listed the Greenbelt Act.

“They basically had no friends on this bill,” Mr. Gray said. “It was very confusing and I think they themselves got caught out on it a bit because you saw MPPs and the Premier himself saying the bill didn’t touch the Greenbelt – which is a really weird place to be in when your bill specifically does touch the Greenbelt. It’s just bizarre.”

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NDP MPP Peter Tabuns said he was cautiously celebrating the government’s decision to back down, and said Mr. Ford should not try to interfere in the Greenbelt again.

“We pushed back because we knew how much the Greenbelt meant to people of Ontario, and I think [Mr. Ford] assumed that he could get away with anything. Well, he can’t,” Mr. Tabuns told reporters at Queen’s Park.

“He has to understand people of Ontario are going to fight him every time he tries to do something like this.”

Mr. Gray said his efforts will now focus on the government’s recently announced plans to liberalize its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which was originally meant to force developers to build denser communities that can be served by public transit. The government argues its proposed looser rules would spur the construction of much-needed housing, but Mr. Gray and other critics say the new plan will mean a return to suburban sprawl.

Wednesday’s reversal is the second time Mr. Ford’s new government has had to change gears on the Greenbelt, the 7,200-square-kilometre protected zone of farmland, wetlands and woodlands that stretches around the Greater Toronto Area from Niagara to Peterborough that was brought in by Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals in 2005.

During the election campaign last spring, Mr. Ford’s Liberal opponents released a video showing him pledging to open up a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt. At first, Mr. Ford responded by saying he would replace any land opened up for developers with other protected lands. But just a day later, he recanted completely and promised to keep the Greenbelt “in its entirety.”

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“There have been a lot of voices saying that they don’t want to touch the Greenbelt,” Mr. Ford said last May. “I govern through the people, I don’t govern through government. The people have spoken – we won’t touch the Greenbelt."

With a file from Laura Stone

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