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Land use planning and development

Land use planning is the process of decision-making for the management of our land and resources.

Land development means altering or developing land through land use activities including, but not limited to, grading, soil removal, construction, shoreline stabilization, alteration to watercourses, extraction of aggregates and clearing woodlots or forested areas.

Public policy and legislative obligations

Both land use planning and land development are regulated under Ontario's land use planning and development system. In general, municipalities have the major role in land use planning in Ontario. They use official plans, zoning by-laws, development application approval processes, and transportation and infrastructure planning, among other tools, to help them decide how they will grow and develop, while keeping important social, economic and environmental concerns in mind.

Those who want to alter or develop land are required, by law, to first address public concerns about how their proposed development could affect the environment and cultural heritage resources, including archaeological sites. The approvals processes for land use planning and land development balance the interests of individual property owners with the wider interests and objectives of the whole community.

The Ontario Heritage Act prohibits anyone from disturbing or altering an archaeological site — whether on land or in the water — without an archaeological licence from this ministry. This includes land use activities and land development.

The Planning Act, administered by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, sets out the ground rules for land use planning in Ontario. It defines:

  • How the land use planning system works
  • Who makes decisions
  • How to resolve disputes and seek public input
  • Provincial and municipal roles in planning administration.

The Provincial Policy Statement is the complementary policy document to the Planning Act. It provides policy direction to municipalities and other approval authorities who make decisions on land use planning matters. It includes strong policy direction to protect the province's natural heritage, water, agricultural, mineral, and cultural heritage and archaeological resources.

The Provincial Policy Statement defines archaeological resources as "artifacts, archaeological sites, and marine archaeological sites". Its Section 2.6.2 says that development and site alteration shall only be permitted on lands containing archaeological resources or areas of archaeological potential if the significant archaeological resources conserved by removal and documentation, or by preservation on site — where "conserved" means "the identification, protection, use and/or management of cultural heritage and archaeological resources in such a way that their heritage values, attributes and integrity are retained."

Where significant archaeological resources are to be preserved on site, only development and site alteration that preserve the heritage integrity of the site may be permitted. This may occur, for example, when an Aboriginal village site, extending over a large area, is preserved by allocating the area as green space.

In addition to the Planning Act and Provincial Policy statement, other legislation requires that archaeological sites be identified and conserved prior to land use activities that may affect them, including:

How archaeological sites are identified

Often a non-specialist (someone who is not a consultant archaeologist) determines whether or not there is the potential for a property to contain archaeological sites through what is known as a ‘potential call’. These non-specialists can include development proponents for renewable energy projects, approval authorities or the ministry’s heritage planners. These tools are available to help them make the call:

  • Our ministry's checklist (PDF) for determining archaeological potential
  • Archaeological management plans (see the information below)

What happens if there is the potential for archaeological sites on the land?

Once archaeological sites are known to be located or potentially located on land that is being developed, the approval authority for the project will advise the development proponent to hire a consultant archaeologist to carry out an archaeological assessment of all lands that are part of the development proposal before any soil disturbance occurs. Learn more about archaeological assessments.

The role of approval authorities

To protect important archaeological sites, approval authorities incorporate detailed archaeological conservation objectives and policies into their development approval processes. As an important part of these processes, the approval authority reviews and approves project development applications. It approves those where development proponents have met all local by-laws and other legislated requirements and public concerns — including concerns about archaeological sites which warrant an archaeological assessment.

The role of consultant archaeologists

As part of the land use development process, development proponent clients rely on consultant archaeologists who hold a professional licence — and current archaeological licence card — issued by our minister. These individuals carry out archaeological assessments  to ensure that concerns for archaeological sites have been addressed and that previously unknown archaeological sites are identified. They also provide technical advice on appropriate measures for the conservation of archaeological sites.

In addition, some municipalities and planning authorities choose to engage a consultant archaeologist to help them prepare archaeological management plans to identify and map the areas of archaeological potential within their communities.

You can find consultant archaeologists and archaeological consulting companies by searching the phone book, the Internet or the Association of Professional Archaeologists membership list.

The role of the ministry

Many approval authorities rely on our review of archaeological assessment reports when deciding whether or not concerns for archaeological sites have been addressed by a development proponent. After reviewing an archaeological assessment report, ministry staff will provide the consultant archaeologist who completed the assessment with a letter. If the report complies with the Ontario Heritage Act, the terms and conditions for archaeological licences, and ministry requirements for archaeological fieldwork and reporting, the letter will tell the archaeologist that the report has been accepted and entered into the Ontario Public Register of Archaeology Reports. This letter can be used by the approval authority to verify that concerns for archaeological sites have been addressed for the property that was assessed.

Archaeological management plans

These plans include detailed maps of all areas of archaeological potential within a municipality . They also include a strategy to identify areas where known archaeological sites are present, areas where there is potential for archaeological resources to be present and archaeologically sensitive areas, such as the specific locations of sensitive cultural remains (e.g., cemeteries).

They are an efficient and effective way for municipalities to ensure that important archaeological sites are conserved during land development activities. One can tailor the format of such plans to the unique needs of a municipality, making them an important planning tool for municipal staff. They can include locally developed policies  and processes and protocols for the municipality that are consistent with current provincial policies and easy to implement. They can identify conservation strategies for archaeological resources early in the land development approvals process. They can also help identify areas that will require archaeological assessment prior to land development.

Penalties for disturbing an archaeological site without a licence

The Ontario Heritage Act prohibits anyone from disturbing or altering an archaeological site — whether on land or under water — unless they hold a valid archaeological licence issued by the ministry. You may be disturbing an archaeological site, if you pick up arrowheads in a farmer's field, grade an archaeological site with a bulldozer, or take objects from a shipwreck.

Anyone who disturbs or alters an archaeological site or removes an artifact from a site without a licence can be fined or imprisoned. A person or a director of a corporation found in violation of the act or its regulations can face a fine of up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment for up to one year or both. A corporation found in violation of the act or the regulations can face a fine of up to $250,000.

What to do if you find human bones

The Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, when proclaimed in force, require anyone who uncovers a burial site containing human remains to report the discovery to the appropriate authorities — the police or a coroner. Likewise, archaeologists who encounter human remains during archaeological fieldwork are required to comply with all relevant provisions of the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act and Ontario Regulation 133/92 (Burial Sites) as part of the terms and conditions of their archaeological licence.

If human remains are discovered during land development activities, all construction and soil disturbance must stop immediately to allow the authorities to investigate. All archaeological fieldwork must stop until the coroner has had the opportunity to investigate and the Registrar of Cemeteries has been consulted.


For more information contact:

Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport
Archaeology Programs Unit