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Ontario's Bill 23, introduced by Minister of Municipal of Affairs and Housing Steve Clark last month, would cut the fees, known as development charges, that many developers pay municipalities to cover the costs of parks and other infrastructure need to service their projects.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is amending parts of its sweeping draft legislation aimed at speeding up housing construction, but critics say the move does little to fix the bill, which they charge would shift billions of dollars in infrastructure costs now covered by developers to municipalities and weaken environmental oversight.

On Monday, the ruling Progressive Conservatives put forward a series of changes to its housing bill, Bill 23, which was before a legislative committee scrutinizing the draft legislation at Queen’s Park. Among the adjustments is the withdrawal of a proposal that would have banned all “third-party” appeals, such as those launched by residents or environmental groups, of projects before the province’s land tribunal.

The government also put forward a revision meant to allow Toronto and other cities to continue to have some purview to enforce “green building standards” on developers. It also proposed making the bill’s steep discounts on fees for certain development projects retroactive, even applying to those already in process – including some units not deemed “affordable.”

NDP MPP Jessica Bell said the changes do little to mitigate the damage she says the bill will do to the environment or help it make more of a difference to Ontarians who need affordable housing. She also said the government’s amendment to allow municipalities to maintain environmental standards for buildings would only provide for what she said would be watered-down rules.

“Overall, Bill 23 is a pro-developer bill that harms affordability, municipal budgets, the Greenbelt and farmland,” Ms. Bell told reporters on Monday.

The bill, introduced by Minister of Municipal of Affairs and Housing Steve Clark last month, would cut the fees, known as development charges, that many developers pay municipalities to cover the costs of parks and other infrastructure need to service their projects. The discounts would apply to affordable and rental projects, and are meant to encourage more of them.

But municipalities have warned that the bill could be costly. The Association of Ontario Municipalities has said the draft legislation, if passed, would cost local governments $5.1-billion over the next nine years in lost development charges – meaning property taxpayers would have to pick up more of the bill for new parks, transit and other infrastructure. Toronto officials have said the changes would cost the city more than $200-million a year. Mr. Clark has said he hoped to work with the federal government on funding to replace the missing cash.

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In just the last few weeks, the PC government of Premier Doug Ford has made a flurry of proposed changes to the way housing is approved and infrastructure is paid for, while also unveiling plans to allow 50,000 new homes in parts of the province’s protected Greenbelt lands – a move that breaks multiple past promises.

Last week, the government unveiled a separate bill to supercharge the already-strengthened powers of the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa and allow them to pass provincial priority items related to housing with just a third of their councils’ votes.

Mr. Clark says all these measures are needed to address the housing crisis and meet the province’s goal of building 1.5 million homes over the next decade. But the whirlwind of proposals has churned up vehement opposition from environmental groups, planning experts, some municipal politicians and all of the living former mayors of Toronto.

The mayors – David Crombie, John Sewell, Art Eggleton, Barbara Hall and David Miller – all signed an open letter released late Sunday urging current Mayor John Tory, who had asked the province for the enhanced powers, to reverse his position. They said they are “appalled at this attack on one of the essential tenets of our local democracy and a fundamental democratic mechanism: majority rule.”

The Opposition NDP says the provincial government has been rushing its Bill 23 through the legislature, even denying AMO representatives time to speak to the standing committee on heritage, infrastructure and cultural policy, which is holding hearings on the proposed law. Mr. Sewell was removed by security from the legislature last week after he was denied an opportunity to address the committee.

A coalition of scores of environmentalists and civic groups condemned the housing bill and the Greenbelt move on Monday, including Environmental Defence and Mr. Crombie, who resigned in protest in 2020 as chair of the provincial government’s Greenbelt Council over a previous move to weaken local conservation authorities.

Bill 23, if passed, would further restrict the powers of conservation authorities to scrutinize development on environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands or floodplains. It would also allow Mr. Clark to quash rules such as those in Toronto that require developers to replace any rental housing they tear down. (Mr. Clark said last month he wanted to have a dialogue with Toronto on this issue.)

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