The Ontario government is using a tool to speed up controversial developments by eliminating expert analysis and public input. It’s called a Minister’s Zoning Order. It was meant for special cases, but has now become routine.
A Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) is part of Ontario’s Planning Act and allows Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark to make a ruling on how a piece of land is to be used in the province, with no chance of appeal by municipalities, citizens or environmental groups.
MZOs have traditionally been used by the provincial government in emergencies, or to quickly advance a major initiative of provincial significance. Examples include allowing a new grocery store to open in Elliott Lake when their only other one caved in, and when the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan was launched to help address water quality in the lake.
Times have changed. In just over a year, the Minister has issued over 20 new MZOs, which is many more than the past government did during their entire 15 years in office.
These approvals are now diving deep into areas of decision making that formerly were the responsibility of municipalities. They include individual development proposals that may or may not have any support from local governments or the public.
For example, the Minster issued four orders in one day in April and then another seven in August. The April orders included approval of the destruction of three small protected wetlands to make way for a large warehouse and distribution centre in Vaughan and another to allow a retirement community to be built on farmland in Markham and Whitchurch-Stouffville. One of the MZOs issued in August in the Caledon area approves a major new development that is strongly opposed by the Peel Regional government.
In addition to undermining and by-passing democratic decision making at the municipal level, the overuse of MZOs sends a message to developers that they can get approvals without having to worry about pesky issues like road access, water and sewer infrastructure, protection of the environment or whether new housing or businesses are actually wanted or needed by a community.
For example, Dorsay Developments has long wanted to build a large new town in the middle of the farmland of the Carruthers Creek headwaters. Located north of Ajax and Pickering, this area is bordered by the Greenbelt. Concerns about the potential impact of the development on downstream water quality and quantity were so great that the Toronto Region Conservation Authority was tasked with conducting a watershed impact study. That study raises serious concerns about the proposed development. However, that has not stopped Dorsay from seeking an MZO to by-pass all of the necessary planning. Due to pressure from many members of the community and environmental organizations, the Region of Durham voted to opposed the MZO and the Minister then confirmed he would not issue the MZO for this case.
Similarly, the developer who received the MZO in Whitchurch-Stouffville now clearly feels this is a great way to avoid local planning requirements concerning the need and feasibility of developments, and is now seeking another MZO for 1,964 homes on 60 hectares of farmland adjacent to the April MZO approval.
The Ontario government seems keen on taking over more local development approval responsibility. Most recently it passed a new piece of provincial legislation (termed the recovery bill ) which enhances the powers of Minister’s Zoning Orders. The bill also legally enshrines a Provincial Land and Development Facilitator, which seems purpose-built to fast track development, including low-density sprawl on farmland, forests and wetlands, outside of normal planning processes.
Of course, in addition to creating long term damage to the environment, increasing property taxes, and enabling more sprawl to eat up Ontario’s best farmland, the Minister has sent a strong message to the Ontario public that their opinion isn’t valuable, that experts don’t matter and that decisions enabling development are his alone.
And of course as the saying goes…once you break it, you own it. Meaning in this case that the public will know clearly why bad development is proceeding in their community and that the Minister can be blamed for it.
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