Sewell and the Septics: The Government Commission that Tried to Give Community Planning Back to Communities

Sewell and the Septics. Commission members Toby Vigod, George Penfold, Darlene Varleau, Diana Crosbie, and John Sewell having fun alongside their van after a heated public hearing in Owen Sound, Ontario, 1992. Courtesy of George Penfold.

David M. K. Sheinin

In early December 2020, former Toronto mayor and federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister David Crombie resigned as chair of the Ontario Greenbelt Council. Created in 2005, the Council advises the provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs on maintaining the Southern Ontario Greenbelt. As the COVID-19 second wave loomed large, Crombie’s announcement won little media play. But the resignation was a shocker. Crombie wasn’t one to resign.

Since the 1970s, he had been the affable, thoughtful politician able to find common ground with those across the aisle. But now, Crombie had become incensed over the Progressive Conservative government’s November 2020 omnibus budget bill. Tucked away in the fine print of a bill focused on pandemic economic relief, schedule 6 proposed discharging local conservation authorities of their roles in maintaining the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine, and other segments of the Greenbelt. Having unsuccessfully tried to persuade the government to withdraw section 6, Crombie lamented the disastrous assault on watershed planning, local conservation authorities, and “the power of public participation and open debate.” “This is not policy and institutional reform,” Crombie wrote Premier Doug Ford. “This is high-level bombing and needs to be resisted.”

Who should plan communities?

Long before the Ontario Planning Act was first passed in 1946, there were tensions between communities and the province over planning that were never resolved. Meant to set policy and practical guidelines for community planning in the province, and to be revised as conditions warranted, the Planning Act was always a work in progress. Its many amendments in the seventy years that followed responded to a range of corporate, environmental, bureaucratic, and provincial imperatives. Through the 1970s and 1980s, planning in the province seemed in disarray and too frequently in the hands of nameless bureaucrats in Toronto. Many became alarmed at the rapidity of residential and industrial expansion outward from the cities; that building sector employed 12 percent of the total workforce, more than twice those in the auto industry. New data showed escalating environmental damage from car emissions linked to suburban sprawl. Many Ontarians believed that housing developers exerted unreasonable and corrupt influence on rural municipalities. In rural areas, there was often no community planning as suburbs pushed into farmlands and wetlands. Dozens of municipal politicians jumped from short careers at city hall to real estate development companies, using their political connections to win speedy lot severances, subdivision permissions, and the bulldozing of forested space.

“Undermining: Quarrying; coupled with urban sprawl; is rapidly eating up Ontario’s prime farmland.” Dave Norris/Toronto Star, 1971. TPL Toronto Star Collection.

In 1970s Toronto, alderman-turned-mayor John Sewell was one of the most vociferous critics of developer-dominated planning. His focus was on keeping Toronto’s downtown core livable and free of mushrooming high-rise buildings. He despised banal suburbs. One of his political nemeses was David Crombie who, as Sewell’s predecessor as mayor, had been more accommodating of rapid development. A little over a decade after Sewell lost the Toronto mayoralty in 1980, he chaired a provincial commission that would set the stage for Crombie’s dramatic 2020 resignation from the Ontario Greebelt Council. In clear language that was subsequently legislated as amendments to the Planning Act, the recommendations of the Ontario Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario went further than any previous legislation, commission report, or government policy statement in rolling back the authority of provincial bureaucracies, asserting the power of local government authorities, protecting the environment from reckless development, and asserting the imperative of democratic consultation processes in local planning. Crombie’s resignation made no mention of the Sewell Commission. But the principles he stood on derived directly from the Commission’s work.

Sewell and the Septics

In the early 1970s, larger-than-life former Toronto mayor Alan Lamport routinely and derisively called Sewell, “John Sewer.” Lamport disliked Sewell, the other early 1970s urban reformers, and their resistance to unchecked city growth. The meanness of the play on words still saddens Sewell. Little did either know that the nasty moniker would reverberate when Sewell was asked by the provincial government to chair the Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario. Appointed in June 1991 by the New Democratic Party government, the Commission won a broad mandate to recommend changes to the provincial Planning Act.

Beginning in September 1991, for eighteen months the Commission met with community groups, municipal and county councils, and individuals. As Commission members heard from thousands of Ontarians in dozens of communities across the province, they found that the issue that most grated on people was sewage. Still an area of contention today, to protect the environment the Sewell Commission proposed replacing early 1990s septic tanks with more up-to-date technologies. While the attendant defense of the environment struck many as a positive development, some feared new, unreasonable regulation of their septic tanks and sewage systems from Toronto. At public hearings, they gave the Commission earful after earful on septic systems. Complaints were so frequent and so vehement that Commission members playfully dubbed themselves “Sewell and the Septics.” The nickname was not meant to be dismissive of concerned citizens, commissioner George Penfold told me, or glibness on the problem of rural waste management. Rather, faced with a regular barrage of complaint, Commission members were “letting off some ‘nervous energy’ steam.” But it also reflected two uncommon Commission traits. Members got along unusually well, never falling out over any substantive point of process or policy recommendation. And partly as a result, they came in well under their assigned budget.

“Sign of the times in Peel is industrial park planned for what is now farmland. Farmers say they see urban sprawl engulfing them.” M. Stuparyk/Toronto Star, 1984. TPL Toronto Star Collection.

People also told the Commission that they had been left out of Toronto-based decision-making. Farmers could no longer make a living farming. Many were incensed that the Commission was only just now asking them to preserve farmland when urban sprawl had been absorbing the best arable land in Ontario for decades. In Southern Ontario cottage country, residents worried that the proliferation of recreational development was placing an impossible strain on lakes and rivers. In northern Ontario, people feared that their communities were so small that even a well-intentioned Commission would be unable to invest them with planning authority or tear decision-making out of the hands of provincial bureaucrats.

Though the Commission could not reform sewage technologies, its recommendations went a long way in transforming how communities would be planned. Their 1993 report proposed dramatic changes to the Planning Act and offered a clear path for Ontarians to take charge of their communities — precisely the measures that in 2020, David Crombie concluded were under attack by the Ford government. The Commission advocated the linked objectives of halting suburban sprawl in Southern Ontario, protecting farmland, and preserving wetlands, ravines and river valleys. The boundaries on urban areas were more clearly defined, blocking the ooze of development into environmentally sensitive places. Before accepting new residential and industrial building projects, municipalities would now have to go through revised Planning Act norms on the efficiency of water consumption, the reduction of car traffic, sound public transit models, the protection of agricultural land, and the preservation of vulnerable species. But it would be the municipalities and local planning commissions making the decisions, not the jumble of provincial government bureaucracies.

While proposing no draconian rules in this regard, the Sewell Commission opposed low-density housing developments as necessarily dependent on cars, while high-density development had resulted in cookie-cutter housing in the suburbs. They favoured medium-density solutions that would accommodate more pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and would better protect the environment. Development would be banned in flood plains and “areas of natural and scientific interest, groundwater recharge areas, significant wildlife habitat and shorelines.” Suburban development would be blocked if it did not reflect “a compact form and a mix of uses and densities that efficiently use land, infrastructure and public service facilities.” Planning would have to favour public transportation, traditional downtowns, and the requirements of pedestrians. For the first time, environmental reviews would be incorporated into the planning process at the municipal level.

The Commission concluded that the current planning process was interminable, dismissive of local voices, and too firmly in the hands of large developers. In addition, the Commission proposed an end to a provincial role in approving individual development projects. The province would focus instead on upgrading polices on which municipalities could base planning and development decisions. Municipalities would then be mandated to develop official plans in keeping with provincial policy. The province would review a first, new local community plan. After that, new plans and plan changes would remain exclusively in local communities.

Changes to the Planning Act would provide guidelines for municipalities on how to preserve river systems and wetlands. They would discourage communities from spot-zoning and site-specific planning that might include turning designated farmland into building lots at the behest of a developer. And at every stage, municipalities would have to consult with the public on planning proposals. While developers expressed concerns over the planned end to suburban sprawl, many applauded the Commission’s call for a faster planning process. Now, there would be deadlines for provincial and municipal decisions on development applications. The Ontario Municipal Board, the arbiter of community-developer disputes, would be obliged to schedule preliminary meetings within a month of receiving an appeal. Until then, the waiting period for such hearings was over a year.

Looking back, Commission members have some regrets. Uncommon at the time, they made a point, for example, of including First Nations in the review process. But the response was unenthusiastic. Sewell believes that, perhaps with good reason, Indigenous peoples were distrustful of the Commission. He wishes now that he and his colleagues had been more resourceful (and more resolute) in including Indigenous voices in the process.

Protesters from Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations protest mercury pollution at Queen’s Park, 1975. Frank Lennon/Toronto Star, 1975. TPL Toronto Star Collection.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs accepted almost all the Sewell Commission proposals and suggested that Planning Act language be altered to read that planning decisions in all jurisdictions “be consistent with” the act – instead of the more ambiguous existing language, “shall have regard to.” At the end of the process, Sewell met privately with provincial premier Bob Rae who was initially cautious. Before changes were made to the Ontario Planning Act, he wanted to poll Ontarians on the Commission’s findings. Polls showed that the public favoured the changes at which point the government legislated amendments to the provincial Planning Act to incorporate Sewell Committee recommendations.


Environmental groups and many others celebrated – until the 1995 provincial election of Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government. Harris set to work eviscerating the Planning Act of the Sewell Commission amendments. In fact, under the Progressive Conservatives, most critics of environmental destruction and unchecked development argued that the province regressed far past the 1991 status quo when the Sewell Commission had gone to work. A low point in the Harris government came with a massive sell-off of Crown land, much of which went at bargain basement prices to government cronies. No event better defined the Harris years than the 2000 Walkerton, Ontario crisis where the contamination of the town’s water supply left seven dead. The disaster combined three hallmarks of the Conservative government –downloading responsibilities from the province onto municipalities unable to assume those duties; wanton deregulation in many sectors including public health; and a disregard for water supplies and the environment more generally. Sewell Commission proposals were in tatters.

After 2002, there were criticisms of further sell-offs of Crown land under Liberal governments. But much of the work of the Sewell Commission, including the empowerment of local planning commissions, was restored to the Planning Act before being gutted once again in schedule 6 of the 2020 Omnibus Bill. And as though on cue, not a month after David Crombie’s resignation from the Ontario Greenbelt Council, the current government announced that former premier Mike Harris would be appointed to the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest honour.

David M. K. Sheinin directs the Trent University History Graduate Program and is Académico Correspondiente of the Academia Nacional de la Historia de la República Argentina. Benjamin Bryce and David have co-edited Race and Transnationalism in the Americas (University of Pittsburgh Press, May 2021).


Chipman, John G. A Law Unto Itself: How the Ontario Municipal Board Has Developed and Applied Land Use Planning Policy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario. New planning for Ontario: final report summary and recommendations of the Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario. Toronto: The Commission, 1993.

 Dubey, Anita. “Sewell Commission Considers Alternative Septic System.” Alternatives Journal (Waterloo) 19, no. 2 (1993): 8.

Gibson, Robert B. “Development Reform and the Environment In Ontario: The Sewell Commission and the Evolution of Government Responses to Environmental Concerns.” The Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 13 (1993): 287–95.

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