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Feds warn Ontario they could shut down development near Rouge Park

Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at a Magna International production facility, in Brampton, Ont., on Wednesday, February 15, 2023. Ford says an environmental study the federal government is reportedly planning on launching shouldn't slow down plans to develop housing on the Greenbelt. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

VAUGHAN, Ont. — Ontario's plans to build housing near a massive national park could be shut down if a new study shows a negative impact on biodiversity and at-risk species, the federal environment minister warned on Tuesday.

Steven Guilbeault said the study will be conducted as soon as possible in Rouge National Urban Park in the Greater Toronto Area.

Premier Doug Ford said he was not given a heads-up about the study, but was "not too concerned" it would affect development.

"It shouldn't slow down our development plans, it's adjacent, it's not right there, but good luck to them," Ford said.

The province will continue moving forward to build homes, Ford said. They have an ambitious plan to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years.

Guilbeault took issue with Ford's comments.

"I think these things really matter and I profoundly disagree with Premier Ford on this," he said.

Rouge National Urban Park is home to 42 species-at-risk, Guilbeault said. Those include the bank swallow, the red-headed woodpecker and the monarch butterfly.

Guilbeault said he has stopped previous developments when impact studies pointed towards consequences for species-at-risk.

"It's not a theoretical possibility," he said.

Guilbeault has previously voiced concern about Ford removing about 7,400 acres from 15 different areas in the protected Greenbelt lands, while adding more parcels elsewhere, in order to build 50,000 homes.

Some of that land is next to Rouge park. 

Guilbeault said the federal government, environmental groups and farmers are concerned over plans to develop parts of the protected Greenbelt.

He said he chose to study the park area rather than launch a regional impact assessment because a broader study would have required collaborating with the Ontario government.

"Collaboration is impossible," Guilbeault said of working with the province to understand the effects of development on the Greenbelt and the park.

"There is zero desire. I think the government of Ontario has been very clear: no desire for public consultation, no desire for transparency, and no desire to understand what the environmental impacts and the health impacts to Ontarians would be of going ahead with these developments."

The study will be conducted by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada in collaboration with Parks Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The scope and terms of the study will be presented to Guilbeault by the end of June.

Guilbeault was joined at the news conference by several groups opposed to the province's development plans.

"It's going to ruin the Rouge," said Pauline Browes with Friends of the Rouge Urban National Park.

She applauded Guilbeault's efforts as did Martin Straathof, the executive director of Ontario Farmland Trust.

He said developing prime farm land in the area and across southern Ontario will be an "irreversible mistake." 

"These decisions will absolutely contribute to the inflating prices of farmland, making it more challenging for current farmers to buy land, to expand their operation, or for new farmers to be able to buy land to start their new operation," Straathof said.

A spokeswoman for Ontario's Housing Minister Steve Clark said the land in question "must avoid impacts to species at risk and comply with the Endangered Species Act."

"While we know that the federal government shares our goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next 10 years, particularly at a time when it has set ambitious new targets for immigration, we need to work collaboratively to meet that goal," said Victoria Podbielski.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.

The Canadian Press

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