Without the support of council, or the recommendation of Town staff, and despite violating numerous provincial and municipal policies meant to ensure responsible land use, a proposed warehouse development in the Greenbelt was secretly pushed by former Caledon mayor Allan Thompson, FOI documents show.
Last year, after it became clear that staff and members of the public would not support the controversial project, Thompson quietly sent a letter to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark asking for help to force the controversial development’s approval by issuing an MZO for the massive warehouse in Caledon East.
It did not conform to policies that prevent projects that pose ecological or other environmental risks, or represent poor land-use planning.
That did not stop Thompson and the PC provincial government from overriding local planning processes meant to protect the public interest.
The revelation has left residents enraged over the secretive process which kept community members in the dark on a significant development project, parts of which encroach into the Greenbelt.
At a January 2022 public meeting, Rice Commercial Group asked the Town of Caledon to make a request to the Province for a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) for its site, 12245 Torbram Road. MZOs used to be a rare tool used by the provincial government in extreme circumstances, primarily when a quick land-use approval is needed in the event of an emergency such as a natural disaster, extreme weather event or unexpected economic crisis. When the PCs came to power in 2018 under the leadership of Doug Ford, they began to use the tool to override local planning procedures, including public consultations or any appeal process, in order to expedite development proposals by builders that for decades had gone through the publicly accountable local planning process.
The warehouse development discussed at the time would cover 370 acres on the north side of Mayfield Road between Torbram Road and Airport Road and would consist of a series of warehouse buildings. The lands were classified as Rural System and Area with Special Policies (Greenbelt Plan) within the Region of Peel’s Official Plan and Prime Agricultural Area and Environmental Policy Area within the Town’s Official Plan. The lands would also be subject to planning restrictions under the Region’s settlement boundary expansion that came a few months later.
The request to support the MZO application was referred to staff. According to the minutes of the January meeting, staff were asked to report back to Council with additional information and a recommendation on how to proceed. This never happened.
Despite no staff recommendation, an MZO was issued by the PC government for the development on September 9 which expanded the lands for development from the 370 acres originally proposed by the developer to the Town, to 502 acres. The additional land was already owned by the Rice Group and, under the Province’s decision to override municipal approval authority, it was added to the northern reaches of the initial development plan.
Town staff explained to The Pointer that the matter was never brought back to council because a motion passed by elected members requires that in order for an MZO to be voted on, the following had to be completed: a public information meeting; a staff report recommending approval; ensurance of conformity with the Official Plan, Provincial Policy Statement and Conservation Authorities; and a statement justifying the purpose of the MZO for the public good had to be completed. Steps meant to protect the public and Caledon’s lands were not taken.
Therefore, “Staff could not write a staff report recommending approval,” a spokesperson for the Town told The Pointer in an email statement. “The MZO request did not conform with the Provincial Plans, Peel Official Plan, and the Town of Caledon Official Plan. The request was not consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) and with Conservation Authorities regulations and policies. Another reason is that servicing is not in place.”
Former councillor Ian Sinclair said he recalls the initial MZO request from the Rice Group being “poorly drafted”. He said the development group claimed the request needed to be expedited because it already had a customer for one of the buildings.
“Hardly a reason to set aside principles of good planning,” Sinclair said. “The MZO was approved without a professional planning report covering all aspects of good planning by Town staff. The principles of administrative law were not adhered to in the MZO decision.”
At the April 11 Planning and Development Committee meeting, a memorandum was on the agenda pertaining to the Rice Group development. Despite staff claiming the purpose of the memorandum was to keep the Town informed on the MZO process, the communication was tucked within a packed council agenda and was nearly passed over by all the councillors in attendance.
Ward 3 Councillor Doug Maskell zeroed in on the item, peppering staff with questions regarding the largest warehouse development in Caledon, which, even though it’s set to be built in his ward, was something he had not been informed about prior to noticing the memo on the agenda. Staff and some members of council made multiple attempts to move the conversation into closed session, but Maskell refused, insisting the public be allowed to hear the conversation.
Addressing Maskell’s questions about the Town’s stance on the MZO request, Antoinetta Minichillo, chief planner and director of planning, revealed that a former member of council wrote a letter to Minister Clark requesting an MZO for the development.
Documents obtained through an FOI request filed by a local resident and shared with The Pointer revealed the letter was written by former mayor Thompson. This was later confirmed by Mayor Annette Groves.
The notice of the MZO published on the Environmental Registry of Ontario states that a request was made by the Town of Caledon. Staff have publicly stated they did not support the request and council members did not authorize Thompson to make a decision that should have been reached through a vote.
“Thompson wrote the letter on official Town Mayor’s Office letterhead. As Chief Executive Officer, writing a letter on the mayor’s letterhead is not independent, it is corporate,” Sinclair told The Pointer in an email. “Thompson’s decision to write the letter was independent from a Council decision and the knowledge of Council members.”
Thompson did not respond to The Pointer’s request for comment. Rice Group did not respond either. They were asked if any discussions had occurred behind the scenes between the two parties following the January 17 public meeting and prior to the letter being sent to the provincial housing minister to get the MZO. When reached by phone, Thompson did not comment on the letter.
The FOI documents reveal another example of an elected official siding with developers in an attempt to circumvent the publicly-driven planning approval process.
“If we can no longer depend upon you to properly consult with your constituents, then perhaps it is time for us to consider new leadership,” Caledon resident Susan Beharriel wrote in a written submission to council on the day of the public meeting in January 2022.
The decision by Thompson to write the letter came a few months before the October 2022 municipal election; he had already announced he would not be running.
Throughout his 19 years on council, first as a councillor and then as mayor, Thompson supported the development industry. He repeatedly voted in favour of controversial development proposals and land-use plans and was heavily criticized for failing to disclose his own sale of his family’s agricultural land for more than $9 million to a developer, while he took votes to expedite the approval of housing in the same area.
Investigations are currently ongoing at Queen’s Park after questions were raised by the Opposition NDP about whether developers were given a heads up before Premier Doug Ford went back on his promise to leave the Greenbelt as is, opening up 7,400 acres of protected greenspace for development late last year. The move greatly benefitted multiple developers, the Rice Group among them.
Just two months before the announcement to open up lands for development in the Greenbelt was made, a deal closed on the sale of a piece of property in King Township to the Rice Group for $80 million, with the agreement that part of the land would be used for a hospital expansion. The land purchased by the Rice Group was part of one of the parcels inside the Greenbelt the PCs approved for development, despite its previously protected status.
While the MZO process is in the hands of the Province, residents of Caledon, in particular those who live along Torbram Road near the proposed giant warehouse project, are angry over not being properly informed or consulted about the development process.
“I’m not a big fan of MZOs. I’ve never supported an MZO,” Groves said. “But I guess the reality is this, it’s here, and so our job right now is to make sure that we work with these residents, work with the staff and the applicant so that it goes through the process.”
Caledon resident Kathleen Wilson, who created a report card of incumbent councillor’s votes prior to the 2022 municipal election, questioned council members about a possible investigation into Thompson’s MZO letter and how something like that could be allowed.
“As I go through the story, the numbers, and these poor people behind me who are impacted, this is not fair,” she said.
Of the delegates who voiced concern at the public meeting, Minichillo calculated that many were not property owners within 120 meters of the original development application, meaning they would not have received notification when it was brought to council in 2021. This includes six landowners who live on the east side of Torbram Road whose properties will be quite literally enveloped by the warehouses. However, some of the delegates who live outside of the initial 120-metre distance are now going to be directly beside, or across from the warehouses granted under the MZO, which they had no say in.
At the April 11 meeting, Councillor Maskell brought forward a motion to extend the notification boundaries from 120 metres to 1,000 metres in rural areas. The justification for the motion is a proposed development on Hudson Road, where residents outside the 120-metre buffer were unaware of the proposed project. The motion passed, but it doesn’t help those along the lands set to be developed for warehouses by Rice Group.
“Our house is right beside where the zoning has been approved. So I’m not sure why we weren’t provided with any notice,” a resident of Ward 3 who lives along Torbram Road said at the meeting. “Stating that the notices will be provided in the future does not help the current residents with this issue.”
Despite the Planning Act stating that when an MZO is used, there is no obligation for the Town, the Region or the Province to provide notification to landowners, residents say they feel misled by the Town which knew of the MZO and chose not to inform those being affected.
“It’s a moral obligation that somebody should have told somebody at some point,” Maskell said. “Those landowners on the east side are going to be disproportionately affected.”
The only reason these landowners were made aware of the development is because Maskell went directly to the 21 homes surrounding and adjacent to the development site. While some realized some sort of project was set to begin because of the fencing, they only found out about the massive warehouse proposal a few weeks before Town staff say shovels will go into the ground.
“My rationale for going to them was I’ve lived in Caledon for 23 years, I moved out here with my family and I live in a rural area, thinking it’s not going to be developed,” Maskell told The Pointer. “And I said to my wife, ‘if that happened to me, I would want somebody telling me and protecting me, because I don’t know these things’.”
Maskell said the Town has been caught in a tough situation and now it is in “damage control”. Mayor Groves stated multiple times during the April 25 meeting that she “doesn’t have the answers” on how to proceed, but committed to making sure the Town and Rice Group responsibly engage affected residents going forward. She shared a sentiment repeated by other councillors, that municipalities are “creatures of the province”. The delegates were told to take their concerns to local MPP Sylvia Jones. For those who came to delegate, deflecting blame only deepened their frustration.
“I’m requesting that there’ll be a pause on development until the residents of Caledon can get answers to their questions,” one of the delegates stated. “I confirm it was said many times that you do not have answers to our questions. And we require answers.”
Maskell said he agrees that residents require answers about how the proper processes for development applications meant to protect the community were circumvented. He said proper planning processes are in place for a reason and, as a schoolteacher, he believes rules should be followed.
On Tuesday, May 9, Maskell plans to bring forward multiple motions to help deal with the MZO. He is requesting that Council send a letter to Premier Ford and Deputy Premier and local MPP Jones repudiating the actions of former mayor Thompson and asking the Province to revoke the MZO.
“We are creatures of the province,” he said. “But we don’t have to be a bug, we can choose to be a lion.”
By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 09, 2023 at 09:31