A brooding red-brick building with boarded-up windows stands on Hamilton Mountain.
A 23-hectare wetland filled with tall grass and bulrush where birds flock on their migration is nestled south of Highway 401 near Pickering, Ontario, on the border with Ajax.
Although just over 100 kilometers separate Hamilton’s Century Manor, a 138-year-old former psychiatric hospital, and Pickering’s Duffins Creek, a provincially significant protected wetland, they have something in common: they have been subjected to a powerful and controversial tool the Ford government has used to accelerate development across Ontario.
A Minister’s Zoning Order, or MZO, is a trump card that allows the province to immediately authorize development and override local planning rules to speed up building whatever it wants. Although subject to judicial review, MZOs cannot be appealed or set aside unless the province does.
The Conservative government says MZOs have helped tackle the housing crisis and health care capacity issues.
His political opponents, however, say the tool gives too much power to the province and is set to become a big deal ahead of the June 2 provincial election, as land use planning can affect the environment, health , housing prices, heritage buildings, traffic and demand for major infrastructure.
“With the stroke of a pen, a developer can come in and start building on land, whether it’s historically significant or on wetlands…it’s a very cumbersome tool for the government to use when it comes to how we plan to build our cities,” said Sandy Shaw, NDP Environment Critic and MPP for Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas.
The Auditor General has criticized the use of MZOs
The Office of the Auditor General of Ontario has criticized the Ford government’s use of MZOs in its report 2021.
He says MZOs were originally intended to be used sparingly, such as in areas without municipal governance or to quickly advance provincial initiatives.
But that’s not happening now, according to the report.
The province issued 44 MZO from March 2019 to March 2021, double the total issued in the previous 18 years.
“Before that, an MZO was issued approximately once a year,” the report read.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing did not immediately respond with the current number of MZOs it has issued.
“Our audit found that the recent increase in use and the lack of transparency in the issuance of MZOs are inconsistent with good land use planning principles…this approach treats the land use planning process as an obstacle,” the report said.
Of the 44 MZOs, 18 were issued on land previously zoned for agricultural or natural heritage purposes, 13 were to build long-term care homes, 10 were to build affordable housing, and five were in response to the pandemic.
He said 26 of the 44 MZOs did not include proper consultation in municipalities with regional governments (e.g. Halton or Niagara), and 13 of the 44 would allow development on land outside municipal boundaries where it there might not be any planning yet.
In addition, 17 of the 44 MZOs were from the same development companies or group of companies, according to the report.
“The way Doug Ford and his friends have used MZOs over the past two years is completely out of the ordinary,” said Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.
The Auditor General made four recommendations regarding MZOs, including:
- Work with municipalities to make land use planning more efficient while respecting the rules of the Planning Act.
- Creating a formal review process for MZOs
- Incorporate and document consultation with municipalities
- State publicly whether an MZO complies with the Provincial Policy Statement and, if not, how the province will mitigate adverse impacts.
The province only responded to the first recommendation, according to the report.
Province Defends Use of MZOs
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing declined an interview, but spokeswoman Zoë Knowles said the Liberals and NDP did not do enough to address issues like the housing crisis while in power.
“Maybe if they had used MZOs to build housing, long-term homes and expand hospitals, we wouldn’t have the housing crisis or the health care capacity issues that our government has been struggling with. attack today,” she wrote.
She also said that MZOs accelerated the creation of:
- More than 58,000 new housing units, including over 600 supervised housing units.
- More than 68,000 new jobs.
- More than 4,100 new long-term care beds.
Knowles said the government “has been clear” that it will not use MZOs to build on the Greenbelt, and pointed to an MZO in Guelph that the city’s mayor noted helped protect local drinking water.
“This is one of the rare and extraordinary examples of how a Minister’s zoning order can be used to truly protect people, communities and the environment, and has gone through a process that has subject to full and appropriate consultation with communities and First Nations,” said the Leader of the Green Party of Ontario. Mike Schreiner.
Knowles added that MZOs issued on non-provincial lands come at the request of the local elected council, with a supporting council resolution.
But opposing political parties cite two examples of questionable use of MZOs.
Century Manor and Duffins Creek
In Hamilton, Shaw highlights how an MZO disrupted local plans for historic Mansion of the century.
Mohawk College intended to turn it into a student residence after reaching an agreement with the former Liberal provincial government.
The college planned to invest $9 million to restore Century Manor and pay $9.52 million to purchase 8.5 hectares of land to expand its campus.
The province was to use that money and $5.5 million to build a tower with 20% affordable housing.
“It was a community-led plan that had multiple benefits for residents and the government just issued an MZO that was not requested against the wishes of the municipalities,” Shaw said, noting that she has repeatedly asked the province to rescind the order.
The college previously told CBC that its interest in the property had waned because of the government’s vision for the land and because online courses meant it didn’t need it as much.
The government recently put the lot for sale to create a property with long-term care homes.
Duffins Creek is another example that Shaw, Del Duca and Schreiner point to as the problem with how MZOs are used.
“It’s especially troubling… when we know that wetlands are essential to purifying our drinking water and protecting us from flooding,” Schreiner said.
The province issued an MZO to allow a developer to build a warehouse for Amazon on the wetland, but faced strong public opposition.
The government has reduced the power of conservation authorities to block development, introduced a bill to retroactively lift a building ban on a protected wetland and ordered the Conservation Authority to Toronto Region to issue a development permit for the site.
But Amazon withdrew from the case.
How other parties would use MZOs
Del Duca said the Liberals would eliminate MZOs and replace them with something more limited.
“We would only allow an expedited planning process that would be targeted to projects of provincial importance, for example, non-profit long-term care, real affordable housing… [and] certain types of jobs,” he said.
“It’s meant to be a tool of last resort, not a weapon of first instance.”
It would also restore judicial review of MZOs and require more public consultation.
Schreiner said the Greens will ensure MZOs comply with the provincial policy statement and local rules.
He also said the public would have plenty of time to comment and appeal to the MZOs. He added that the party would respect its duty to consult with First Nations communities.
Shaw said the NDP will rescind MZOs for all protected lands like wetlands.
“Who benefits from all these MZOs that allow development in wetlands, on historic sites?”