Will the PCs revoke the MZO for 12245 Torbram Road in Caledon, where a giant warehouse complex teeming with commercial trucks is slated to dominate the surrounding rural landscape?

That is the question Marit Stiles, leader of the Official Opposition, asked during question period yesterday following the revelation this week that the Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) was requested by former Caledon mayor Allan Thompson without the knowledge of council or the public.

“The town council and local planning staff did not support this project,” Stiles said inside Queen’s Park. “Local residents weren’t even notified, much less consulted. But then the mayor ignored the wishes of his democratically elected council and asked the Housing Minister for an MZO. Does [the premier] think that those secret undemocratic dealings are acceptable?”

“Will he revoke this MZO?”

The question from Stiles was prompted by a series of tense Caledon council meetings when it was first admitted by Antonietta Minichillo, director of the planning department and chief planner for Caledon, at an April 11 meeting, that an MZO for a 502-acre warehouse complex that will encroach into part of the Greenbelt was requested “independently” by a former member of council. An FOI filed by Caledon resident and good governance advocate Kathleen Wilson later showed former mayor Thompson sent a letter to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on July 22, 2022, six months after the developer, Rice Commercial Group, asked the Town of Caledon in a public meeting to request an MZO from the Province (for decades the planning tool was hardly ever used by the Province to override the approval authority of local governments in special circumstances, but Ford and his PCs have issued dozens and dozens of MZOs as a way for developers to circumvent the publicly-driven local planning process).

Staff at the Town of Caledon previously told The Pointer they could not provide a recommendation to council to request the MZO because it did not conform with the required policies.

“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,” a spokesperson for the Town told The Pointer in an email. “Another reason is that servicing is not in place.”

Regardless, an MZO was granted on September 9, 2022 prompting widespread outrage from the Caledon community.

After publicizing the results of her FOI request, Wilson sent a letter to Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, questioning the MZO process and how the Caledon MZO was granted. In his response, Clark referred to a request, not only from Thompson, but from the Town of Caledon as a whole.

“Recent MZOs made in the Town of Caledon were at the request of the Town of Caledon and former mayor Allan Thompson,” the letter states. “It is my expectation that when requesting an MZO, municipal councils have done their due diligence and conducted proper consultation in their communities, including with the public and other impacted stakeholders, before the local municipal council sends any request for an MZO to me for consideration.”

This suggests Thompson ignored the expectations of the Minister, who can revoke the MZO if he feels transparency and accountability were overlooked.

The notice on the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO), makes the same statement that the MZO was requested by the Town of Caledon. But this is misleading as council never took a vote on whether or not to support the MZO.

“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,” former Caledon councillor Ian 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.”

Current council members were not even aware of the massive MZO development, and area residents who live on Torbram road backing onto the warehouse site were also kept in the dark. Ward 3 Councillor Doug Maskell previously told The Pointer he did not know of the MZO in his community until a memorandum was posted on the April 11 council agenda. He then took it into his own hands to inform the local community, many of whom are unimpressed with the way the process unfolded.

“The developer asked Caledon for an MZO. By September, without the support of the town council, they had it,” Stiles stated. “Were there any conversations that occurred between anyone in [the Premier’s] government and the Rice Group before the mayor requested this MZO?”

Without answering the question, the PCs used the opportunity to bash Stiles’ NDP Opposition for their continued resistance to changes in development legislation that the Ford government has pushed through in the past six months to get 1.5 million homes built in just eight years, an unprecedented pace for residential construction in Ontario.

“This is the mandate of the NDP: oppose everything, oppose growth, oppose jobs, oppose the people,” Paul A. Calandra, Minister of Legislative Affairs and Government House Leader, said. “Are we going to continue to put those in place for people who can bring jobs to the province of Ontario? You’re darn right we are. Are we gonna continue to bring in those communities that want to work with us to bring more housing, jobs and opportunity? Yes. Will we go even further and bring them to those communities that fight jobs and opportunity but that we know are good for the people of the province of Ontario.”

Before the election of Ford as premier in 2018, MZOs were a rarely used tool that was relied upon approximately once per year. An MZO streamlines a development proposal allowing it to bypass the process of rezoning approvals and public consultation and was intended for use in unusual situations. But between March 2019 and 2021, the PC government granted 44 MZOs, a number that has dramatically increased in the years since.

The Ford government’s rationale for the increased use of MZOs is to streamline the new-home construction process. But opposition leaders have repeatedly argued there are ways to accommodate growth while following proper planning processes.

The recently proposed Bill 97, being pushed through by the PCs, aims to provide the housing minister with the authority to use MZOs when certain planning approvals need to be circumvented in order to greenlight projects without proper scrutiny. If Bill 97 is passed it will make it even easier for the PCs to sidestep planning legislation and force development against the wishes of municipalities and their communities, benefitting the developers.

“What we want to do is give people the opportunity to succeed,” Calandra said. “Because when we do that, this province and this country prosper, and that is what has grown this province for generations.”

The Opposition NDP say the Ford government is not giving people the opportunity to succeed, its is simply doing the work of powerful developers who contribute substantial amounts to Ford and his Party.

“This government just loves a background deal, it’s like they can’t help themselves,” Stiles said.

She brought forward the Private Members Bill, the Strengthening Members’ Integrity Act, which “would ensure that a member of the Legislative Assembly could not accept a fee, gift or personal benefit that might reasonably be seen to have been given in connection, directly or indirectly, with the performance of the member’s duties of office.”

The PCs squashed the Bill when it came to the floor Thursday afternoon with 71 votes opposed and 31 in favour.

“One of the most powerful things we can do as legislators is leave this place stronger than it was when we arrived,” Stiles said in a press release. “Today, the Conservatives rejected that, doubling-down on their return to a cash-for-access culture where their insider friends come first, and ordinary Ontarians come last.”

On the same day, Premier Ford referred to the formation of the Greenbelt as “a scam” at a press conference in Brampton, reiterating the government’s priorities of expanding development despite the existence of legislated environmental protections.

Residents of Caledon were thrilled to see Stiles take up the fight at Queen’s Park, but on the municipal level the battle is already underway.

“This is super important, as this is for the Rice Group and they are friends with benefits,” Wilson said. The Rice group is one of the developers who have benefitted from the provincial government opening up 15 parcels of land in the Greenbelt for development.

Councillor Maskell said he will be bringing forward two motions in the May 16 Planning and Development Committee meeting asking council to repudiate the actions of former mayor Thompson and for staff to write a letter to the Province requesting the government revoke the MZO. He is also asking for the Town to release communications between Thompson and the Province regarding the MZO between July and December 2022. Given the current split on council between those who generally vote in support of developer-driven actions and those who do not, Maskell said he is hoping council will take the opportunity to vote in the best interest of the community.

While the PCs will have the ultimate decision on whether or not to revoke the MZO, the demands from the Opposition reflect the frustration of Caledon residents who refuse to let profit motives shape their community. 

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 15, 2023 at 07:04

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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