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.)

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

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 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.

Graphic by Emma McIntosh

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.

Graphic by Emma McIntosh

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.

Premier Doug Ford, fifth from left, at an August 2020 groundbreaking for an MZO-enabled Walmart distribution centre. Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski are at right. CNW Group/Walmart Canada

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.

Graphic by Emma McIntosh

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.

Keep reading

Excellent reporting by the National Observer. Why are we not surprised at Doug Ford's misuse of the MZO to award gifts to his supporters?? Here in Toronto we are fighting to save the Heritage Designated Foundry Buildings in the The Distillery District, from Ford's MZO order to demolish them because of their sites proximity to the new Ontario Line Corktown station - Ford needs to gift prime downtown land to his developer buddies in exchange for building the new stations. He is using the MZO to get around Heritage Designated building bylaws. Not only are our wetlands at stake, but also our history - nothing is safe or off limits from Dougie's MZO.

Such a shame—but it’s part, the last part, probably, of a much more shameful development that, until now, never got developed: the late-60s expropriation of thousands of acres of farmland and small villages, ostensibly to build an international airport for fast-growing Toronto north of Pickering, and an adjacent “satellite city” called “Cedarwood.” The expropriation area was reorganized into Durham Region. By the time most residents discovered the federal/provincial scheme, hundreds of old family farms, some owned by the same family that had originally felled the hardwood bush and broke ground in the 1830s, had already been expropriated—and the government said it was too late to turn back.

Expropriation agents singled out older farmers to whom land had been handed down for generations but whose kids had found work in the towns and factories along Lake Ontario: having nobody to take over the farm, these old timers jumped at the first offer dangled in front of them so’s to retire in old age, comfortable in the new, burgeoning subdivisions of Pickering, Markham and Stouffville.

This was a terrible time. Families and communities were irrevocably smashed. By night, hand-built barns were surreptitiously stripped of their barn board siding (for interior decorating in the city) and stood like skeletons beside abandoned farmhouses, often of granite fieldstone, occasionally discovered to be clad over a square-timber oak log-cabin from the pioneer days. A fervent movement to reverse or amend the North Pickering plan proceeded concurrently with legal challenges to expropriation money offers (my old man got double the government’s initial offer—but it took many, many years. He spent it on rent for the next 30 years). The NDP took this riding to carry the protest to Queen’s Park (the provincial parliament). Books were written, most well known probably being MPP Godfrey’s “People Over Planes” (or something like that). Public hearings were held. It was all for nought. It took years. It ground people down. How many times have I heard, “the airport [expropriation] killed my dad”!

The airport and satellite city were never built—but all the land was expropriated and rented out to big industrial-style farming. Many residents remained as renters. Ironically, the region remained an anachronism for over forty years: encroached on three sides by expansive urbanization, yet remaining much the same (except for missing barns and houses), rural and, slowly, reclaimed by animals not seen in those parts for generations: fox, deer, wolves.

One of the many small villages within the expropriation area is Whitevale, my hometown, established 1828, location of the last commercial water powered grist mill in Ontario. North Pickering Housing Corp (the Crown agency) demolished the millpond where we used to fish and play hockey. I returned less and less often over these four decades. Our front field had become a forest my dad planted. Last I was back, we buried him, about 15 years ago, just across the Concession Road and within sight of his beloved property. The new toll highway cut across the fields just over the hillock behind our old house. It was disorienting, but there were still enough recognizable features—like the two-room schoolhouse I attended as a boy (it did grades one to eight!) which was closed in 1965, purchased and turned into the home of my dad’s good neighbours (our dear friend Charles Neville died last Solstice at 100 years old—he lived his last few years at the veterans hospital in Toronto. We heard a rumour the old schoolhouse will be preserved as a heritage building —but I doubt the government will afford the cost of maintenance. It was built in 1865. I had dinner there with my brother when we we back, after the cemetery. The blackboards were still there, one with lessons from ‘65 still written in chalk).

Of course, many old friends of mine still live in the region. One has been posting photos of the new developments suddenly breaking in on this last relic of a bygone era. Earth movers, pavers, construction. I sign online petitions to save this or that wetland from the rampant development D’ohFo’s government allows by fiat. From what I’ve seen, it’d break my heart to go back. I doubt I ever will. The countryside is unrecognizable—soon it will be instant city.

Duffins Creek flows through Whitevale. The millpond dammed it about a mile upstream from the village; a mill-race paralleled the river at the same level as the millpond—a mile long skating rink in winter, and wonderful place to raft, fish and swim in summer. Now, the drained pond is subject of efforts to preserve it as wetland. It looks so different. The dam’s concrete abutments are the only reference for me. The islands where the old trapper skinned his muskrats are now forested hillocks. (His old house below the bridge in Whitevale is now the community centre.) I lived down in Pickering for a winter back in the mid-70s; it was near where Duffin’s Creek empties into Lake Ontario which, from our old house ten miles north, looked vast an ocean—with the imposing nuclear power plant domes right in the middle of the vista. We used to fish (poach) smelts near the power plant —where they couldn’t get over a weir. We never drank the water, but I remember the smelts fondly.

I’ve been wondering for almost fifty years when that anomalous enclave of farmland would succumb to the relentless pressure to developed around land-hungry Toronto (and other cities now coalesced). I’m sad to say it looks like now. Those little “waste” areas of formerly unbuildable wetlands are becoming more precious by the day. Good luck my friends!

I too thank you Emma for your excellent research and reporting. I'm also very concerned about the MZO in Stratford as well as the MZO that threatens the Foundry in Toronto. I suppose none of this is a surprise but it is appalling. The Ford government is being very short-sighted even with respect to their own political future. I believe that many conservative Ontarians are proud of history and also feel a strong connection to protected environments. Big corporate interests can give to a campaign. Real people vote.