This story is Part 2 of a series about the Ford government's use of ministerial zoning orders. Read Part 1 here.
In Pickering, Ont., a cluster of marshes and swamps south of Highway 401 has become an unexpected battleground, pitting job creation against environmental preservation.
The wetland of willow trees, silver maples and cattails, once protected from development by provincial rules, is now slated to become a warehouse attached to a nearby casino development.
Since 2018, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has used unappealable special orders to allow a host of powerful developers to build in a number of ecologically sensitive areas, bypassing the usual approval process.
In addition to the Pickering wetland, ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) have also allowed swaths of farmland and a slice of ecologically sensitive moraine to be opened up for development.
Since 2018, the Progressive Conservatives have issued 37 MZOs and used a similar mechanism to rezone land in a 38th case.
An analysis by Canada’s National Observer, released this week, shows that 14 of those orders have been for sites with environmental concerns.
In nine of those cases, the MZOs appear to benefit developers whose senior staff and executives have donated significant sums to support the Progressive Conservatives: $112,915 to the party and $150,000 to the third-party group Ontario Proud, which supported the PCs in the 2018 provincial election.
(While the names of donors match those of senior staff and executives, the Observer cannot independently verify they are the same people. The Observer sent the donation records to the companies, none of which disputed them.)
Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark's office says “the topic of donations has never come up” in conversations with the proponents of projects that have received MZOs. It justifies MZOs, saying they are speeding up projects that will boost Ontario’s economy, create sorely needed long-term care spaces and foster the construction of affordable housing.
Here’s a close look at three MZOs issued by the Ford government that involve environmental concerns.
The Ford government has used MZOs to override environmental concerns and approve projects proposed by donors. Here's a closer look at three of them. #onpoli
The Duffins Creek wetland slated to become a warehouse
Development on the Pickering, Ont., wetland complex was prohibited because it’s been designated as “provincially significant.” That label means it’s been identified as one of the most valuable in the province, a designation given to sites that have undergone an evaluation based on a manual nearly 300 pages long.
Such wetlands tend to offer flood protection, improve water quality or be home to rich biodiversity — functions especially crucial as wetlands in southern Ontario are “disappearing,” a provincial government website notes.
Located just inside Pickering’s boundary with the neighbouring town of Ajax, the wetland connects to the broader Duffins Creek watershed as it drains into Lake Ontario. Duffins Creek is in relatively good condition, but the watershed is under pressure as urban boundaries expand, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) says.
After Clark issued an MZO on Oct. 30, the wetland complex is now slated to become a warehouse, part of a nearby casino development called Durham Live. Pickering’s council unanimously supports the project, but Ajax is opposed.
“This whole thing is an example of what not to do,” Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier said in a phone interview, calling the development a “poster child of abuse of the MZO system.”
“Everything about it has just been done completely wrong and backwards.”
A long list of allies — locals, environmentalists, Williams Treaties First Nations and the TRCA — are also opposed. A member of the government-appointed Greenbelt Council resigned over the issue.
The company behind the project is Greek-Canadian billionaire Andreas Apostolopoulos’ Triple Group. The Apostolopoulos family had a net worth of $3.9 billion in 2018, according to Canadian Business magazine. They’re best known for their so far unsuccessful efforts to attract a Major League Soccer team to the Silverdome arena in Pontiac, Mich., which the family bought in 2009.
When the Ontario Liberals were in power, Apostolopoulos and his three sons — Jim, Steve and Peter, who all work for Triple Group — donated to that party. But they switched their donations to the Progressive Conservatives in 2018, the year the Tories formed government, and have contributed $15,000 to the PCs in the years since.
The developers also donated to the campaigns of both Collier and Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan.
“No amount of contribution is influencing my vote,” Collier said. “I can't say the same for my neighbours.”
Ryan’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but he has previously denied the donations played any role in his decision to support Triple Group’s request for an MZO, and said the jobs created by Durham Live are a welcome economic boost.
Ryan has also questioned whether the wetland still deserves protected status, citing an environmental assessment commissioned by the developer, which noted it is surrounded by industrial activity. The TRCA has said the report isn’t a comprehensive look at the wetland.
Triple Group didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment, but the company has previously disputed the idea that political donations from the Apostolopoulos family factored into the province’s decision to issue an MZO. Steve Apostolopoulos didn’t respond to a request sent on LinkedIn.
When the TRCA signalled it would not allow the project to proceed despite the MZO, the Ford government passed legislation in December to limit the power of all conservation authorities. The government can now compel the agencies to issue a permit for projects with MZOs.
The TRCA issued a permit for Durham Live earlier this month.
Triple Group has agreed to work with the TRCA to lessen the environmental impact of the project, possibly by creating replacement wetlands elsewhere.
However, critics and environmental advocates say replacing wetlands is easier said than done and maintain there was other land nearby suitable for the project. They've also held blockades at the Durham Live site.
Collier said he’s received more than 20,000 emails from angered residents, and he doesn’t understand Clark’s rationale for issuing an MZO.
“This is my government, let me be clear, I supported them from the start,” Collier said.
“Then all of a sudden, this happens… And I'm having a real hard time with that.”
Backed by big-name developers, a project tied to a controversial highway
Clark issued an MZO on July 7, 2020 to approve Mayfield West Phase 2 Stage 2, a residential development northwest of Toronto in Caledon, Ont. It will draw 7,500 new residents to the area, mostly through low-density housing, including townhouses.
The project is located on former farmland, a concern for environmentalists, who say the loss of agricultural land contributes to urban sprawl, eliminates a key carbon sink and presents risks for food security.
But this land is also interesting for another reason: it sits within the western elbow of the proposed route of the GTA West Highway, a controversial project that would cut through 53 waterways in the protected Greenbelt.
The GTA West Highway was originally proposed and then dropped by the previous Liberal government after environmental groups objected and it was shown to reduce commuting times by only one minute. The fate of the Mayfield West development was intertwined with that of the highway: when the road project was suspended, the residential development was paused as a result.
Now the highway is again under consideration by the Progressive Conservatives. Caledon council requested an MZO for Mayfield West from the province, the Ford government complied and Mayfield West is back on track.
In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson said the project “fully complied” with provincial policy and involved consultations, “numerous studies” and “layers of approvals.”
But the project has been divisive throughout Peel Region, which encompasses Caledon along with the Toronto suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton. Peel’s regional council voted against it, and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie expressed disappointment at its approval.
Mayfield West Phase 2 Stage 2 was proposed by a group that includes big names in development: Brookvalley Project Management, which is run by Nick Cortellucci, a member of the wealthy Cortellucci family; Conservatory Group, run by the Libfeld family, which had a net worth of $842 million in 2016, according to Canadian Business magazine; Fieldgate Developments; Mattamy Homes; and Paradise Developments. Laurier Homes is also involved in the project.
The developers donated a total of $55,199 to the Progressive Conservatives between 2018 and 2020, the Observer’s analysis shows.
They also donated an additional $150,000 to the third-party group Ontario Proud, which campaigned in support of the PCs in the 2018 election. That sum made up nearly a third of the group's overall budget that year.
Of that, $100,000 came from Mattamy Homes and $50,000 was contributed by Nashville Developments, an entity that includes Fieldgate Homes, Paradise Homes and TACC Developments. (TACC Developments wasn’t involved in the Mayfield MZO but did receive a zoning order for a different project.)
None of the donations exceeded limits set by Elections Ontario for personal contributions, which were $1,600 per party and per candidate of a party in 2019, and $1,625 per party and per candidate of a party in 2020.
Brookvalley Project Management, Conservatory Group, Fieldgate Developments and Paradise Developments didn't respond to emailed requests for comment.
Adam Rubinoff, whose name is listed on Laurier Homes’ corporate registration, donated $972 to the Progressive Conservatives in 2019. In an email, Rubinoff said any donation he made “had absolutely nothing to do with any MZO,” and that he hadn’t heard of the mechanism until late 2020, when someone who has “nothing to do with any project in Caledon” explained it to him.
Mattamy Homes has since said it doesn’t support Ontario Proud and regrets making the donation.
“At the time, we believed Ontario Proud was a credible advocate for advancing the province’s housing agenda, specifically in relation to housing availability and affordability,” reads a statement on the company website.
In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, Mattamy denied its donation record might have been a factor in the MZO. “The request originated with the Town of Caledon, and the development had broad support from planning staff,” the statement said.
Wetlands become a Walmart distribution centre
East of Highway 400 in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, lie three wetlands once considered so important they were marked as provincially significant, much like the ones connected to Duffins Creek.
They were home to a type of endangered minnow called a redside dace, which eats by jumping out of the water and catching bugs in mid-air.
Now, after an April 24, 2020 MZO, work is underway to build a Walmart distribution centre on the site and replace the wetlands elsewhere.
The project, which was supported by Vaughan city council, broke ground in August. Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the MPP for the area, came to the groundbreaking and held shovels for the photo-op.
One of the developers involved is Condor Properties, which is affiliated with the Condrain Group of Companies, a sewer and water main company. It was started by the De Gasperis family, which had a net worth of $1.66 billion in 2018, Canadian Business magazine said. Another Condrain company, DG Group, is listed as a proponent in municipal planning documents.
Also involved were Fenlands Vaughan Inc. — a company that doesn’t have a public-facing presence but shares an address and directors with the asset management company Fengate, according to corporate records — and a Concord, Ont.-based company called Lorwood Holdings.
People with names matching those of senior staff and executives at Condor Properties, Condrain, DG Group and Fengate contributed just over $20,000 to the Progressive Conservatives over the past three years. Most of that sum, $14,520 donated by nine people, went directly to the party.
The proponents of the Vaughan project didn’t respond to multiple emailed requests for comment.
In a letter to Vaughan council, the developers wrote the area at the project site had already deteriorated to the point where it no longer met the requirements of a provincially significant wetland.
One was "better described as an upland forest" as it had dried out; two were infested with invasive species, the proponents said. They also noted recent widening work on nearby Highway 400 "accelerated" the decline of the wetlands, and downstream drainage was also expected to be "heavily polluted" from road salt.
Working with the TRCA and the province, the developers struck a deal to recreate redside dace habitat nearby and build new wetlands larger than the ones that would be lost.
Still, development on protected wetlands is verboten, and the process of removing that designation is slow. The proponents asked the municipality to request an MZO from the provincial government, and Vaughan city council signed off.
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 help boost the city’s economy amid the fallout of COVID-19.
“Key economic development projects like these will ensure we emerge stronger, together,” he said.