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The Ford government handed down six special land zoning orders Monday night, doubling down on the controversial method of fast-tracking development.

Of the six directives ⁠— called ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs ⁠— an analysis by Canada’s National Observer shows half ⁠were used to override environmental concerns. All three environmentally sensitive proposals came from the same company, Flato Developments, whose founder donated thousands to the Progressive Conservatives in 2018.

The move came despite public backlash and questions raised by opposition critics in the legislature about the orders, many of which have benefited developers who donated significant sums to the Progressive Conservatives.

“Big donors like Flato Developments are getting priority status thanks to this government’s decision to quietly sign a whopping six new MZOs late last night,” Ontario NDP finance critic Catherine Fife said in question period Tuesday. (The Speaker later asked her to withdraw her comments.)

“Why is this government putting money and politics ahead of the province and our environment?”

Premier Doug Ford fired back. “We will never stop issuing MZOs for the people of Ontario, the people that need housing,” he said.

Ford defended his government’s use of the orders, which cannot be appealed and allow projects to skip the usual planning process. The orders are aimed at spurring job creation and building more housing in the rapidly growing Greater Toronto Area (GTA), he added.

“There are 40,000 people moving in the GTA, the fastest-growing region in North America,” he said. “If it was up to (the Ontario NDP) they’d be living in mud huts right now.”

In a statement, the office of Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said all six of the newly approved MZOs were requested by local municipalities and located outside of the protected Greenbelt.

Of the six ministerial zoning orders issued Monday night, an analysis by @NatObserver shows half ⁠were used to override environmental concerns. #onpoli

‘Another addition to the terrible legacy of MZOs’

Two of the Flato MZOs apply to land in Markham that lies close to the Greenbelt. Although the area isn’t covered by Greenbelt rules, development too close by can affect the quality of the protected land. Municipal staff did not support Flato's request for an MZO, calling it "premature," but the local council went against that advice and voted to sign off.

The other Flato MZO makes way for a residential development in New Tecumseth, Ont. ⁠— roughly an hour north of Toronto. It will add 1,000 units of housing targeted at seniors on an area adjacent to a floodplain. The Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, a local non-profit, has raised concerns about whether the area’s already stretched water supply can handle the development.

“This is just another addition to the terrible legacy of MZOs that benefits developers at the expense of the community,” Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition executive director Margaret Prophet said in a statement Tuesday.

Flato's president and founder, Shakir Rehmatullah, donated $2,400 to the PC Party in 2018, half of which went to the premier's leadership campaign. (The same year, he also donated $2,400 to the Ontario Liberals and $500 to the Ontario NDP.)

“Donations play no role in the issuance of MZOs, and as previously stated, they were requested by the local municipalities,” Clark’s office said in its statement.

Flato Developments didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

"It’s wrong for Ford to misuse MZOs to do an end run around the local planning process and provincial planning rules," Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Tuesday.

"Especially when we learn that a number of the orders permitting development are tied to PC donors and are environmentally destructive... Environmental protections are not red tape. They are crucial to keep people and the places we love safe and healthy."

Previous governments used MZOs a handful of times per year, but the Ford government issued 37 between 2018 and 2020 ⁠— including two for previous Flato projects ⁠— and used a similar power to rezone land in a 38th case. An Observer analysis released last month found 14 of the directives were used to override environmental concerns, and of those, nine benefitted developers who had donated significant sums to the Progressive Conservatives.

Including the MZOs issued Monday night and one order issued for lands in Hamilton earlier this month, the Ford government has now issued 44 in less than three years. That amount is more than twice as many as the previous Liberal government used during more than a decade in power.

Speaking at the legislature Tuesday, Ontario Liberal environment critic Lucille Collard said the Ford government's approach to MZOs risks causing environmental damage that future generations may have to reckon with.

"The government is acting as if economic development is an overriding priority that must come at the expense of our environment," she said.

The other MZOs issued Monday night apply to developments in the Greater Toronto Area.

One directive sets aside land in the Bolton area of Caledon, a growing suburb, for a future GO train station. Another in Clarington, northwest of Toronto, would allow a hardware store to go on land with a sensitive aquifer on it, according to municipal planning documents. (It's unclear how much the project might affect the aquifer — the developer has agreed to do a study to examine the environmental impact of the project, but that assessment hasn't yet been completed.)

In Vaughan, north of Toronto, an MZO issued Monday would allow an affordable housing development proposed by Cortel Group. The company is run by the longtime Progressive Conservative donor Mario Cortellucci.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
March 9, 2021, 05:52 pm

This story was updated to include comments from opposition critics and more details on the MZO in Clarington.

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This is getting out of hand. Time for some big guns to take action. It's true that an MZO cannot be appealed to the LPAT (Local Planning Appeal Tribunal) but this pattern of normal process override should be challenged in the courts. Retroactive legislation should be a no-no as well. CELA? Ecojustice?

On one hand, I wouldn't be surprised if MOST Ontario developers of any size have donated money to the Conservatives, so the percentage involved in these MZOs may not really be an indication of anything. On the other hand, the REASON most Ontario developers of any size have donated to the Conservatives (and, particularly when they were in office, the Liberals too) is that we have a pay-to-play democracy of which these shenanigans are just one example, a bit less subtle than usual.

Once again I have to note with astonishment how cheap it is to get acquiescence from the PC government on MZO orders favouring developers on projects with dubious prospects. All this flurry of "building" when thousands of square feet of commercial and industrial space are no doubt vacant in this province. Even the housing projects are of dubious value when prices are still astronomical, evictions are looming and so is homelessness in a market that is acting like there is a bubble. Is everybody suffering from delusions of grandeur? Or delusions of greed?