This story is Part 1 of a series about the Ford government's use of ministerial zoning orders. Read Part 2 here.
The Ford government has used controversial special orders to allow developments on sites involving environmental concerns 14 times since 2018, an analysis by Canada’s National Observer has found.
In nine of those cases, the orders benefitted developers who donated $262,915 to the Progressive Conservatives and Ontario Proud, a third-party group that supported the PCs in the 2018 election, the analysis shows.
The directives — called ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs — allow Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark to decide how a parcel of land can be used, overriding local planning and existing zoning rules. An area set aside for agriculture can become a new subdivision. A protected wetland where development is usually forbidden can become a warehouse.
“It’s Steve Clark’s new magic wand. He points, says, ‘Shazam,’ and suddenly there’s a new building there,” said Ontario NDP MPP Ian Arthur, then the party’s environment critic, in a phone interview in late January. (Arthur took on a different critic role on Feb. 1.)
“There’s no oversight… Make a donation, you’ll get your project.”
The orders have benefitted some of Ontario’s most prominent developers: the Cortellucci family, which controls an empire of companies in the Greater Toronto Area; the De Gasperis family, which controls the company Condrain Group and had a net worth of $1.66 billion in 2017; Peter Gilgan, the billionaire founder of Mattamy Homes; the Libfeld family, which runs Conservatory Group and had a net worth of $842 million in 2016; and Greek-Canadian billionaire Andreas Apostolopoulos’ Triple Group of Companies.
People with names matching those of executives and senior staff for the developers linked to the nine most controversial projects have collectively donated at least $112,915 to the party over the last three years, Elections Ontario records show.
Three companies involved in the nine developments also contributed a total of $150,000 in 2018 to the third-party political advocacy group Ontario Proud, which campaigned to help Ford’s Progressive Conservatives win that year’s provincial election.
Though the names match, the Observer cannot independently verify they are the same people. The Observer sent the donation findings to each company, and none were disputed. (Two people with common names were removed from the analysis.)
When asked whether the developers’ donation records played a role in the province’s decision to issue MZOs, Adam Wilson, a spokesperson for Clark, said in a statement the government issues the orders at the request of municipalities, or in cases where the land is owned by the province.
The Ford government has used ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, to override environmental concerns in 14 cases, an analysis by @natobserver shows. In many cases, developers who benefitted donated thousands to the PCs and Ontario Proud. #onpoli
“The topic of donations has never come up in any conversations with proponents of projects that involve the issuance of an MZO,” Wilson said in the statement.
“Requests for MZOs on non-provincial land come from local municipalities, and municipalities are not special interests nor are they donors."
Political donations are common in industries that work with governments — they aren’t unique to Ontario or development. Developers often give generously during elections at all levels, including municipal. Several included in the Observer’s analysis also donated to the Ontario Liberal Party, for the most part prior to 2018.
MZOs cannot be appealed, and prior governments have used them sparingly. The Progressive Conservative government has issued 37 since 2018, more than the 16 granted by the previous Liberal government during its 15 years in power. The PCs also used a similar but slightly different mechanism to change the zoning of a piece of land in a 38th case.
Over the course of two months, Canada’s National Observer examined all 38 of these directives, using municipal planning documents and local news reports to identify the 14 cases where MZOs were used to push through projects where there were environmental concerns.
Some allow developers to pave over protected wetlands. Others involve endangered species. Several allow the loss of agricultural land, which environmental advocates say is detrimental to future food security and eliminates a key carbon sink to make way for urban sprawl.
Environmental concerns in and of themselves are not enough to block rezonings. And in some cases, the projects might have been important enough to warrant overriding them — several of the orders cleared the way for seniors long-term care facilities and one involved the production of urgently needed medical supplies. But in all cases where MZOs are used, members of the public are denied the opportunity to voice concerns or appeal.
Last year, the Ford government expanded its ability to use MZOs while also weakening environmental protections at other stages of the planning process.
The government introduced legislation over the summer that critics said will water down the environmental assessment process. In December, it went a step further by limiting the powers of conservation authorities, agencies that help ensure development in watersheds happens safely and without harming the environment.
Wilson defended the use of MZOs, saying they’re a tool the government uses to “get critical local projects like long-term care beds and affordable housing” moving faster. Wilson also noted the government is not issuing the orders for lands included in the protected Greenbelt. (In one case, Clark did issue an MZO for Greenbelt land in Aurora, Ont., but it applies to a section where some types of low-density development were already allowed.)
“MZOs are helping to give Ontario an economic boost on our road to recovery and are helping to create more than 26,000 jobs, 3,700 long-term care beds, 1,060 homes for seniors, and hundreds of affordable homes across Ontario,” Wilson said in the statement.
Though some MZOs did fast-track long-term care projects and affordable housing, others were used to approve other types of developments, like warehouses, market-price housing and a film studio.
Critics say the Observer analysis shows the Ford government's use of MZOs is lining the pockets of Progressive Conservative donors while causing long-term damage to the environment.
“It’s really to the detriment of the environment and local democracy, to benefit local developers who are clearly big donors to the PC Party,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said.
Ontario Liberal environment critic Lucille Collard said the analysis should raise concerns, especially about the long-term impact of overriding environmental concerns.
“Economic recovery is important, but not at any cost,” she said in a phone interview.
“Certainly not at the cost of the future generations who will have to deal with the impact of these decisions.”
David Crombie, a former Toronto mayor and Progressive Conservative MP who resigned as chair of the Ford government’s Greenbelt Council in December, said Ontario’s planning process needs improvement. However, he also said the Ford government has been “weaponizing” MZOs in a way that is “short-circuiting” the local planning process and doesn’t solve the core problem.
“It's like saying, ‘I need to align my tires.’ And you take it in, and the guy takes the tires and gives you back your car,” Crombie said.
“It’s no longer a car, but you sure fixed the tires … The idea that you would move to change the fundamental functioning of the thing, that's a different order.”
‘Planning is inherently political’
Past governments have used MZOs infrequently, at times to speed development in emergency situations. One oft-cited example is the order used to relocate a grocery store in Elliot Lake, Ont., when the only one in town was destroyed by the collapse of a mall roof in 2012.
For developers, MZOs can be an important tool for ensuring long-stalled projects make it to completion.
Without an MZO, the municipal approvals process in Ontario often moves slowly and delivers uncertain outcomes, said Mike Collins-Williams, the senior director of planning and policy at the Ontario Home Builders’ Association. Appeals can drag on for years. And time literally is money — every month of delays can mean millions of dollars in extra costs for larger projects.
“This planning process is often measured in years rather than months, and planning is inherently political,” Collins-Williams said.
“(An MZO) can remove approval delays, it can rapidly deliver.”
Especially in the context of COVID-19, Williams-Collins added, MZOs can be used to support economic recovery.
“It's no surprise to anyone that the government is facing a significant deficit,” he said.
“There's been significant job losses. So I believe that (the province is) looking at it in the post-pandemic recovery and trying to get the shovels in the ground faster, almost immediately in some cases, towards creating jobs, creating new housing supply.”
Indeed, the Ford government’s use of MZOs ramped up as COVID-19 took hold in 2020.
The province didn’t issue any MZOs in 2018, the year the Progressive Conservatives were elected. But after issuing five in 2019, Clark issued 32 MZOs in 2020, along with one additional zoning directive using a similar power.
Starting in April, they were often issued in batches, with a flurry of as many as six coming on the same day.
MZOs can be in the public interest when used to approve stalled projects that are almost universally supported, said Tim Gray, executive director of the green non-profit Environmental Defence. But using them like this frequently cuts off public debate, he said.
“It’s kind of the nuclear option being applied on a widespread basis, largely to developments that — the good ones — could have proceeded through the regular municipal planning process,” he said.
‘Thou shalt not develop’
The potential economic benefits of MZOs are increasingly clashing with environmental concerns, with developments on protected wetlands proving especially controversial.
In Vaughan, Ont., just north of Toronto, an April 24, 2020 MZO requested by the local council allowed developers to destroy three protected wetlands and replace them elsewhere, making way for a Walmart distribution centre.
The developer argued the wetlands were already on the decline and should be reclassified. But the process for removing the wetlands’ protected status would take a long time, a hurdle the MZO allowed the developers to clear.
In November, a group of 96 environmental organizations called for Clark to stop using MZOs to develop protected wetlands, pointing to the Vaughan case and a second controversial case in Pickering where protected wetlands would be replaced with a film studio and distribution centre.
It’s not good planning to pave over ecologically sensitive areas like wetlands, Gray said.
“The policy statement is really clear: thou shalt not develop.”
Replacing that habitat is expensive, and sometimes impossible, Gray added. He noted a project now underway in Toronto to reconstruct a marsh erased by development at the mouth of the Don River, which will cost $1.25 billion.
“The approach of just letting anyone who owns land do whatever the hell they want with it is a disaster,” he said.
The proponents of the Vaughan project and the Pickering development didn’t respond to requests for comment. But in a statement, Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua said the Walmart distribution centre would create hundreds of jobs.
“The critical task of city-building is more imperative now than ever as we continue to respond to the global pandemic and do everything in our power to reduce the financial impacts on our city,” he said.
Ford government weakened other parts of planning process last year
Though the province has justified the orders by pointing out they were granted at the behest of municipalities, critics say that isn’t a good enough reason. Municipalities are worried about local concerns and economic benefit, but it’s the province’s job to look at the bigger picture and cumulative impact on the environment.
Take the Greenbelt as an example: Though Clark’s office has repeatedly said MZOs don’t apply to Greenbelt lands, five of the orders affect areas on or near the protected space.
Lands abutting the Greenbelt but not included in the protected area are ecologically connected. Wildlife roam where they please, unencumbered by the border of the Greenbelt, and vital waterways flow through both protected and unprotected space.
The provincial policy has been to zone areas around the Greenbelt for low-impact uses, such as agriculture or low-density residential housing to protect those ecological functions.
Too much development in close proximity to the Greenbelt lands can cause serious harm, Crombie, the former Greenbelt Council chair, added.
“The original sin is to somehow assume that you don’t have to protect things outside the Greenbelt,” Crombie said. “That’s not on.”
Ontario needs stricter rules around MZOs to govern how they’re used, the NDP’s Arthur said. Abolishing them isn’t the answer, he said, but there do need to be criteria for when an order can be used.
“We need to build a more resilient system,” he said.
“No one person should be picking what developments get to go ahead and using a blunt instrument to make it happen.”
Emma McIntosh can be reached at [email protected]