TORONTO — Everyone from farmers to environmental lawyers to former premiers are mad about the Ford government’s increasingly frequent use of minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs.
The special orders let Ontario’s minister of housing approve developments without the usual headaches like mandatory public consultation. But critics say the Ford government is using them way too often, and that their changes to MZOs — buried in bills meant to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic — could hurt the environment.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is a MZO?
A minister’s zoning order (MZO) lets Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, Steve Clark, override local planning decisions to decide how a piece of land is used.
“It was meant for special cases, but has now become routine,” according to Environmental Defence’s executive director Tim Gray.
Municipalities, citizens and environmental groups don’t get the chance to appeal a development if it’s approved with an MZO, Gray wrote.
Why are they used?
Previous governments used MZOs in emergencies, Gray said, like when a town needed a new grocery store after its only one was destroyed.
Ford’s government has issued at least 35 MZOs since coming to power in 2018 — far more than the previous Liberal government used in its entire 15 years under former premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.
A spokesperson for Minister Clark says any MZO he’s issued on land not already owned by the province has been issued at the request of local municipal councils.
The orders are being issued to create “critical projects” like seniors’ housing and long-term care homes, Stephanie Bellotto said by email. But some of the orders actually allow for a broad range of buildings to be erected, including retail stores, restaurants and single-family homes.
What is the Ford government doing with them?
The government is using dozens of MZOs to approve new developments and long-term care homes, but it’s also tinkering with the rules for MZOs themselves.
In July, Ontario’s legislature passed a COVID-19 economic relief bill that also included a section expanding the minister’s authority to approve projects on any land other than the Greenbelt.
The government’s budget bill, passed Tuesday, also expanded how MZOs can be used. The bill will force conservation authorities to approve any development that’s the subject of an MZO.
Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities have the power to put conditions on proposed developments or refuse development on regulated land that’s adjacent to bodies of water or at risk of flooding or erosion, Conservation Ontario’s policy and planning liaison Leslie Rich told HuffPost Canada.
“Now what happens with the MZO is that will override any … decision that the conservation authority would make,” Rich’s colleague Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, said.
“One of the primary roles of conservation authorities is to keep people and property safe,” Rich said. “And we are deeply concerned that this new permitting regime may, in fact, put people at risk.”
Why are people upset?
A group of environmental organizations says the new rules passed Tuesday will let Clark’s ministry ignore environmental considerations.
“When the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, whose staff have no environmental expertise at all, issues a [MZO] for development, Conservation Authorities will be forced to issue a permit – even if their own experts know it will cause flooding or erosion, and jeopardize human health and safety,” said a press release put out by the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence and five other conservation groups.
Wynne says MZOs on land normally regulated by conservation authorities could have far-reaching consequences.
“The MZOs and decisions that degrade source water protection outside the Greenbelt will affect the land inside the Greenbelt,” she said in question period Tuesday. “Water flows.”
Clark’s office said the government is committed to protecting the Greenbelt.
“That is why on Monday, we announced a new $30-million program that will protect, enhance and restore wetlands across Ontario in priority watersheds,” Bellotto said in an email to HuffPost. “We’ve been clear that Ontario can lead Canada’s economic recovery while continuing to protect our environment, public health and safety.”
The former chair of the Greenbelt Council, who resigned after the government refused to backtrack on its changes to conservation authorities, says MZOs let the government skip important consultations and duck accountability.
“They were never intended to become simply tools of convenience for moving developments through the planning process,” David Crombie wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to Clark. “They should be used sparingly and only in exceptional circumstances.”
Local mayors like Aurora’s Tom Mrakas say MZOs on provincial land interfere with his town’s official plans. He says an order was issued for Aurora without any consultation at all.
“It’s just a slap in the face,” he recently told the Globe and Mail. “It makes you think, why are we as municipalities spending all this time and effort on planning if you’re going to just come in and do as you want?”
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the province’s largest farm organization with 38,000 members, says it has “deep-seated concerns” about Clark’s use of MZOs.
His frequent orders let some developers skip agricultural impact assessments, undermine Ontario’s long standing system for land use planning and deprive citizens of the chance to be consulted, the OFA has said in letters to Clark.
The Ontario NDP says the orders are benefitting developers who have donated to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the past.
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Clark’s office points out that other political parties have also received donations from the builders identified by the NDP. The NDP received thousands from TACC Development before corporate donations were banned in 2016, for example, and the Liberal party has received donations from development executives Steve Apostolopoulos and Silvio DeGasperis.
“Why, in the midst of a global pandemic, is the government allowing their donors and allies to build over protected conservation lands?” MPP Jeff Burch asked in the legislature Tuesday.
MPP Parm Gill, Clark’s parliamentary assistant, repeated the minister’s line that the orders have been for land the province owns or they’ve been requested by the municipality.
He said the orders will create new long-term care beds, affordable housing and jobs.
“We’re proud of that record.”
With files from the Local Journalism Initiative