Policy Analysis

MZOs another example of misuse of power

Doug Ford is for the people - as long as those people are developers with deep pockets.

Doug Ford is for the people – as long as those people are developers with deep pockets.

The old LaFarge property in Guelph, ON, 2017

Another week, another ministerial zoning order (MZO) in favour of developers. And if that was not enough, a change to MZOs and the Planning Act threatens to undermine environmental protections and worse, retroactively claim that MZOs do not have to be and never have had to be consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).

But first: what are MZOs? And what about the Planning Act and PPS?

A ministerial zoning order is a provincial government instrument that controls land use and sets specific requirements for new developments. An MZO can also be used to restrict certain types of development but lately, it is hardly ever used for that purpose (but we’ll come back to that later).

MZOs fall under the Planning Act for Ontario and are therefore under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The Planning Act is exactly what it sounds like: it sets out land use planning, the rules for different land uses, and how to control land use. It also gives the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steven Clark, the power to zone, approve, and change zoning without any public consultation or opportunity for stakeholders to appeal the decision. Up until last week’s proposal, any changes to zoning that would affect anything planning-related had to be consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement.

The PPS lays out policies that support the government’s approach to land use planning and development. Before the Conservative government took office, the last update to the PPS was made in 2014. At that point, the goals of the PPS were to support “appropriate” development while protecting resources, public health and safety, and the natural environment. The 2020 update changes those goals to increasing housing and “decreasing red tape”. This version of the PPS is supposed to align with the More Homes, More Choice Act, 2019 and A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and thus supports the government’s prioritization of increasing suburban sprawl. (More to come on the More Homes, More Choice Act, 2019 in a later post).

Misuse and abuse

Bill 257, or the Supporting Broadband and Infrastructure Expansion Act, was introduced on March 4, 2021 by the Ministry of Infrastructure. The overall Bill proposes changes to the Planning Act to to speed up provincially significant broadband delivery projects along with changes to the Ontario Energy Board Act. But under Schedule 3, the Bill quietly slips in a proposal to change the Planning Act such that MZOs are not required and never have had to be consistent with the PPS. The only caveat is that this would not apply within the Greenbelt Area.

By itself, this proposal would be a blatant misuse of power, but it comes on the heels of no less than three lawsuits by environmental groups against the province for their decision to issue an MZO that would allow the Triple Group of Companies to pave over a provincially significant wetland (PSW) in Pickering. According to the Toronto Star, the proposed amendment to the Planning Act “retroactively changes the rules so [the province] can’t lose the case”. Swiftly we leap from misuse of power to outright abuse.

The Pickering case gets worse. Not only was* the site in question allegedly to be used for a massive Amazon warehouse/distribution centre (a company which almost shows outright contempt for the environment and has hired a Swedish private eye firm to spy on environmental activists in the past), but there is another perfectly usable site that is not situated on any environmentally sensitive lands. Less than a kilometre away in Ajax is a golf course. The landowner also applied for rezoning of the property that would allow a distribution centre to be built there, but the Ford government decided in favour of Triple Group. The TRCA are now being strong-armed into issuing Triple Group a development permit despite the razing of the wetland thanks in part to recent changes to the powers of Conservation Authorities under Bill 229. Amazon withdrew their proposal on March 12, 2021 and it is unclear how this will affect Triple Group’s plans for the wetland.

To date, the Ford government has issued 44 MZOs. Thirty-three of those were issued within the last year. By contrast, the previous Liberal government did not reach these numbers even over 15 years. When asked about 6 new MZOs issued in the GTA on March 8, 2021, Ford simply said, “We will never stop issuing MZOs for the people of Ontario, the people that need housing.” His words would hold more weight if he was less blatant about his financial nepotism.

Of those 6 MZOs issued on Monday, three overrode environmental protections. All of those three were requested by Flato Developments, a known Progressive Conservative party donor. At least four other MZOs issued within the last year were also connected to three major party donors. Overall, 19 MZOs issued by the Ford government have been either directly or indirectly connected with known party donors or party affiliates. This is despite the government’s claims that their MZOs are in no way influence by party donations or personal relationships.

The claims that the MZOs are necessary for affordable housing also do not hold much water. Of those issued up to December 2020, only three out of 38 were explicitly labelled as being for affordable housing. (Two proposals were actually for modular housing in the GTA). The rest, however , were decidedly not affordable housing. They were mostly warehouses/distribution centres, business parks, low-density residential properties, condominiums, and branch factories (i.e. factories that are subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies). While several of the proposals were for long-term care facilities and seniors’ homes as promised, many of these are privately owned. None of the MZOs issued this year are clearly for affordable housing developments. In addition, many of the MZOs were issued either without the consent or against the direct wishes of the relevant municipalities. Thus, with just 7% of projects being affordable housing and many actively destroying the environment instead of protecting it, the defence of Bill 257 and the PC’s track record with MZOs is, frankly, total BS.

Great. So now what?

Not all cases are so bleak. Following massive public backlash, Stratford City Council voted 9-2 this week to request that an MZO requested and approved by Steven Clark in 2018 be repealed. The MZO was to allow Chinese company Xinyi Glass holdings and its subsidiary Xinyi Canada Glass to build a glass factory on land designated for agriculture. Xinyi originally brought forth the proposal to Guelph/Eramosa where it was rejected. Allegedly, the public feeling against potential environmental and health hazards was so strong that the City delayed in their discussions surrounding the zoning to the point where Xinyi missed key deadlines for their approvals process. Xinyi withdrew their proposal in February 2021 due to the lack of action from the City. Ironically, though the MZO itself was not subject to public consultation, Clark stated that the request to repeal it would be. While this is only one case out of many, it demonstrates the power of both public movements and municipalities to defend their land and environment.

It also does not need to be this way. While an MZO has literally never been used to protect the environment under Clark and the Ford government, there is nothing to stop that from happening. Back in 2009, an MZO was issued to use the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan in the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury. This prohibited any sort of development on lands zoned for flood control, nature conservation, agriculture, and outdoor recreation. There are several cases open in Ontario where an MZO could be used to halt development near environmentally significant lands, such as proposed aggregate quarry expansions in Halton Region on or near PSWs.

For your part: go to the proposal for Bill 257. Submit your comments. Tell the province that we cannot and will not accept such an egregious overstep that threatens public health and safety, the environment, and our democratic rights. Ford cannot be allowed to continue to gut and ignore environmental regulations and endangered species protections to keep deep pockets on his side.

*Edit: This article was updated on March 13, 2021 to reflect Amazon’s withdrawal from the Pickering site and deal with the Triple Group of Companies.

References

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