By: Mike Anderson
The DG Group surrendered its section 28 permit to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) on August 19, just hours before Georgina Town Council unanimously passed a motion calling on LSRCA to accept the surrender and threatening legal action should the conservation authority reissue the permit.
The motion, introduced by Ward 3 Councillor Dave Neeson, during an evening virtual council session, follows on the heels of LSRCA’s controversial decision to reissue the section 28 permit on June 18, granted originally to the DG Group on March 23, 2018.
The section 28 permit allows the developer to bulldoze a 500 acre section of the North Gwillimbury Forest, comprised of provincially significant wetlands and woodlands, to build Maple Lake Estates (MLE), a 1,073-unit subdivision to be located north of Deer Park Rd, in North Keswick.
The permit was reissued by LSRCA even though an LPAT ruling on December 19, 2019, designated the MLE lands as an Environmental Protection Area (EPA), and ordered the Town to rezone the lands.
That ruling was unsuccessfully challenged this spring by the DG Group, after LPAT denied its request for review on May 14, which promoted the Town to begin the process of rezoning the MLE lands as an EPA, which is due to completed this fall.
Despite LPAT rejecting its final appeal, the DG Group asked LSRCA to reissue its section 28 permit, which was set to expire on July 3.
The new permit, valid for two years, was approved on June 18 by Robert Baldwin, LSRCA’s General Manager of Planning and Development.
While subject to a series of conditions, including Town regulations and bylaws, the permit grants the developer permission to clear the now environmentally protected wetlands and woodlands.
Jack Gibbons, Chair, North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA), the local environmental group that opposes the MLE development and forced the LPAT ruling, has accused Mr. Baldwin and LSRCA of acting illegally by reissuing the permit.
“It was unbelievable that LSRCA reissued this wetland destruction permit,” said Mr. Gibbons, who believes the news of Mr. Neeson’s upcoming motion scared the developer into surrendering the permit.
“The LPAT decision, which designated more than 99% of the Maple Lake Estates lands to be an Environmental Protection Area, clearly stated that it’s off-limits to development. So, it’s absolutely outrageous that a conservation authority would give a developer permission to destroy a 500 acre provincially significant wetland.”
“It’s also unbelievable that a municipality would have to ask a conservation authority to protect a wetland when that’s the mandate of the conversation authority.”
Despite DG Group surrendering the permit, Mr. Neeson, who has opposed the MLE development for years, believes that his motion will act as an insurance policy, ensuring that LSRCA complies with the Town’s demands not to reissue another section 28 permit.
“Quite frankly I don’t trust them. If the DG group doesn’t literally go in to hand in the permit and it gets torn up, they could turnaround a month from now, because they got frustrated in terms of assigning a settlement, and say, okay, well, I’m reactivating the permit.”
Mr Neeson is also highly critical of LSRCA’s role in reissuing the permit.
“The way they went about doing this was completely inappropriate for a partner agency. So, I’m not willing to allow them an opportunity to do it again,” he said.
“The Town’s clearly stated their intention to rezone and take away those development approvals. So, there needs to be accountability from the conservation authority, for a partner to act in that manner is completely unreasonable.”
While The POST asked LSRCA CAO Mike Walters to comment on the permit reissue, he declined as the permit was withdrawn, which he said makes the whole issue moot.
However, Mr. Baldwin, who issued the actual permit, did consent to an interview on August 17, prior to the motion being passed.
According to Mr. Baldwin, the LSRCA had no choice but to reissue the permit as MLE is an approved registered subdivision, and declining it would have triggered another LPAT review and possibly legal action against LSRCA by the developer.
He also said the permit was only valid if DG Group has all the appropriate municipal permissions, which, according to Mr. Baldwin, it didn’t.
“Our goal is still the same as the Town and the NGFA; it’s to find a solution that saves the forest. And that seems at odds with the permit. But we are following a process that’s legislated and tied to agreements,” he said.
Mr. Baldwin believes that the dispute will probably end in ligation, but hopes the province gets involved in sorting things out.
“The problem requires provincial assistance. The Town nor the LSRCA has the power to make a broader land-use decision. I hope this permit will help provoke that discussion and put it back on the front burner,” he said.
“LPAT does not have the right to remove the registered subdivision plan that was approved by an Order-in-Council of Cabinet. So you need the Cabinet to go back in to look at that.”
But Mr. Gibbons is not buying this argument.
“The fact that they were given permission for a subdivision more than 30 years ago is totally irrelevant. Laws change. Yes, they could have done it 30 years ago, but they can’t do it now,” he said.
“We now have strict laws to protect provincially significant wetlands, and the courts have made it completely clear that the conservation authority is not allowed to permit the destruction of provincially significant wetlands for a residential subdivision.”
The Town will have to wait for the LSRCA’s next Board of Directors meeting on September 25 to confirm that the Board has accepted the permit surrender.
In the meantime, Council has instructed Town staff to follow up with the LSRCA to determine if Mr. Walters or the LSRCA Board approved the permit reissue, or if Mr. Baldwin was acting alone in his capacity as General Manager of Planning and Development.
However, in his interview with The Post, Mr. Baldwin confirmed that the permit reissue was indeed a corporate decision.
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