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Protected lands hold a special status in Ontario. These areas are subject to strict rules governing development.

What follows is a brief overview of five major pieces of legislation, which collectively have resulted in hundreds of thousands of hectares of land being declared off-limits to development in south central Ontario, based on environmental and agricultural considerations.

Conservation Authorities Act (1946)

One of the earliest examples of protecting land was instituted in 1946 when the Province passed the Conservation Authorities Act, one of Ontario’s first multi-jurisdictional attempts to maintain the health of rivers and forests while ensuring public safety.

The Act grew out of concerns expressed by agricultural, naturalist, and recreational groups. They pointed to poor land use practices during the 1930s and 1940s that had led to extensive soil loss and flooding. When in 1954 Hurricane Hazel left thousands in Ontario homeless and 81 people dead, the Province placed further restrictions on construction in floodplains and advanced the idea of environmental planning according to natural rather than arbitrary political boundaries.

Today there are 36 conservation authorities across Ontario, each one created at the request of a watershed’s municipalities. A Conservation Authority operates independently in a cooperative, cost-sharing partnership between member municipalities and the Province of Ontario. Each Conservation Authority has jurisdiction over one or more watersheds and the ability to enforce regulations relating to issues such as flood control and erosion.

Niagara Escarpment Plan (1973)

In 1973 the Province of Ontario under Premier Bill Davis, responding to concerns over the extent of quarrying on a ridge stretching from Georgian Bay to the Niagara Peninsula and the need to protect at-risk species and biodiversity, enacted the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act, 1973, which paved the way for the creation of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, one of Canada’s first large-scale environmental land use plans.

The plan area encompasses 194,555 hectares along a forested ridge of ancient dolostone that stretches 725 km from Tobermory to Niagara Falls. It is now designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

The land within the Niagara Escarpment has different levels of protection based on land uses such as natural, protection, recreation, rural, urban, and areas where mineral extraction is allowed.

Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (2001) 

In the 1990s under Premier Mike Harris, similar concern arose over the environmental health of the Oak Ridges Moraine, a ridge of glacial sand and gravel that stretches 160 km from the Trent River in the east to the Niagara Escarpment in the west. Many of the rivers and streams in the region originate in the Moraine. 

Plans to build housing on this environmentally sensitive feature led to the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, 2001, which established a six-month moratorium on development to allow for study and public consultation. The process culminated in the passage of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, 2001, and the regulations of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2002.

Like the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine has different levels of protection depending on different land uses, such as countryside, natural, and settlement designations.

Greenbelt (2005)

In 2005, the Province of Ontario under Premier Dalton McGuinty built on these earlier initiatives by governments creating a Greenbelt surrounding the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

The Greenbelt covers more than 800,000 hectares (check number—I thought it was 1 million acres w/o ORM and NE), including the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine, as well as large areas of rural land (known as Protected Countryside). It was created in response to growing concern about the environmental effects of urban sprawl and the need to preserve the region’s natural heritage and farmlands, while allowing for natural resource management. The same concerns also led to the creation of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe a year later.

Within the Protected Countryside zone is an area designated as a Natural Heritage System.

Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (2005) 

An area in the City of Pickering was set aside in 2005 by the Province of Ontario as an agricultural preserve. The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, 2005, states that the area adjoining the Greenbelt and the so-called Seaton lands (a planned community for 70,000 people) will be set aside for “the conservation, preservation or protection of the land for agricultural purposes.” 

Since 2005, the Ontario government has reiterated its position that the provincial plan for the area envisions a sustainable urban community in Seaton, integrated with a thriving agricultural community in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve and an extensive Natural Heritage System.

Rouge National Urban Park (2015)

The Rouge National Urban Park, described as North America’s largest urban park, was created out of lands owned by the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada covering an area of 80 square kilometres. 

The park, which includes land in and includes lands in the City of Toronto and the regional municipalities of York and Durham, was the result of decades of activism by environmentalists and local politicians who campaigned for the creation of a park that connected the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario.