Ford government’s order to allow destruction of wetland poised to kick in Friday

A developer is poised to get permission Friday to start destroying a protected wetland in Pickering in preparation for building a giant retail warehouse on the site.  

The Ford government ordered the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to issue a permit by Friday to allow the Triple Group of Companies to move ahead with the proposed warehouse project on the Lower Duffins Creek wetland, just south of Highway 401. 

Triple Group’s plan for the wetland is to build a distribution centre of up to four million square feet, more than double the size of the largest retail warehouse in Canada. The developer is not revealing its client for the warehouse, dubbed “Project Lonestar” in public documents.

Sources familiar with the plan tell CBC News the prospective tenant of the Project Lonestar warehouse is Amazon Canada.

A source within Amazon says the company has not signed a lease for the wetland site but is actively considering it, along with multiple other properties in the area. Among those sites, according to sources, is a similarly-sized parcel of land less than one kilometre away in Ajax, on a golf course that does not have protected status. 

The Triple Group of Companies, the developer of the Durham Live entertainment complex, wants to put a distribution warehouse of up to four million square feet on this protected wetland in Pickering. The Ford government has ordered the Toronto Region Conservation Authority to issue a development permit. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Although the cabinet order gives the conservation authority no choice but to issue the permit on Friday, the TRCA board of directors will still discuss the conditions it can impose during a meeting that’s open to the public, scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

The permit would give the Triple Group — developers of the nearby Durham Live casino — the clearance to begin work on the 34-hectare parcel east of Brock Road, a property mostly covered by a provincially-designated “significant wetland.” 

The developer would have permission to dump any material on the site and to remove any part of the wetland.

If the permit is issued on Friday as demanded by the government, it’s unclear exactly when the wetland destruction would begin, but a statement by the company’s lawyer suggests it would happen quickly. 

“TRCA staff are well aware of the timing crunch faced by Project Lonestar and [Triple Group] appreciates the efforts made by everyone to get that project approved and under construction without any further delay,” said lawyer Ira Kagan in a letter dated Wednesday.

One reason why the company might want to begin work without further delay, is the imminent migration of birds to the wetland for their nesting season.

Birds typically start nesting in large numbers in the Duffins Creek wetland in late March, according to ecologists. Under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, it is illegal to harm migratory birds, their nests or their eggs.

If the birds take up residence in the wetland this spring, heavy equipment work on the site could be halted for months until the newly hatched birds leave their nests. 

But if the wetland is dredged and bulldozed before the birds arrive, ecologists say the site would no longer be suitable for nesting, the birds would be forced to go elsewhere, and the developer could move ahead with the construction without risk of breaking federal law. 

The other hurdle for the developers is an Ontario Divisional Court hearing scheduled for Monday, in which environmental groups are asking a judge to halt the wetland destruction. The groups argue that provincial law prohibits the government from issuing an order for developing any property that’s designated a provincially significant wetland.  

The Toronto Region Conservation Authority has indicated it will issue the permit on Friday to pave over the wetland, but will do so “under duress,” as it conflicts with its mandate to manage natural resources in the Toronto region watersheds.

A federal law developed as part of a treaty with the U.S. makes it illegal in Canada to harm migratory birds, their nests or their eggs. (Keith Whalen/CBC)

“The only authorized power that TRCA’s board of directors has at their discretion is the ability to add conditions to the permission to lessen negative impacts,” said the agency in a statement. 

TRCA staff are recommending 20 special conditions on the permit. Triple Group is objecting to nine of those conditions, and wants the conservation authority to remove them entirely, plus modify three of the remaining conditions.     

One measure the company wants stripped from the permit: a requirement that all conditions remain in effect even if the provincial government makes future changes to laws or regulations that weaken the conditions.     

“The parties cannot and should not try to contract out of any future provincial amendments,” says a document filed by the Triple Group’s lawyer to the conservation authority this week.

Despite the availability of the nearby Annandale golf course property in Ajax, zoned for a warehouse, the Ford government has taken several extraordinary steps to pave the way for the project to be built on the wetland in Pickering.

  • The government issued a ministerial zoning order (MZO) last fall to fast-track the warehouse.
  • In December, it reduced the power of local conservation authorities province-wide to block development.
  • Last week, it introduced a bill to retroactively remove a law that would have prohibited construction on a protected wetland. 
  • It ordered the TRCA to issue a development permit for the site by Friday.

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