Ford government forced to fix rushed zoning order that put tower on flight path

An Air Canada flight makes its final approach as it lands at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Sept. 30, 2004. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Ford government was forced to scale back a Minister’s Zoning Order after the developer was given permission to build a skyscraper right in the middle of the flight path of Pearson International Airport, sources told Global News, after a rushed process.

Months after it was issued, the zoning order was quietly amended when airport officials told the government it couldn’t allow a 50-storey tower to be built on a flightpath utilized by hundreds of aircraft.

The gaffe is likely to draw more scrutiny to the province’s use of Minister’s Zoning Orders or MZOs, a controversial tool that allows the province to overrule and replace planning decisions made by local councils.

A rushed process

In May, the province surprised bureaucrats and local politicians at Mississauga City Hall when it issued two zoning orders to skip local planning rules on several buildings in the city.

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The announcement blindsided local officials, who were not expecting the MZOs. Between two orders, the Ford government doubled the size of a waterfront development to 16,000 units and allowed towers along Hurontario Street.

The significant changes were announced late on a Friday night by provincial officials, who pushed out the announcement just ahead of the weekend. Local sources in Mississauga told Global News the move was a surprise and bureaucrats found out about the planning changes at the same time as everyone else — when the press release landed.

It wasn’t just local officials, however, who were scrambling.

Sources with knowledge of the provincial process told Global News the request for one building included in the zoning order — a 50-storey tower — came from the developer and was turned around by the Ford government in less than two weeks.

The order to allow the building near Toronto Pearson Airport came through the Premier’s Office and was given to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the sources said.

The request was reportedly submitted in February and finished by March; it was announced in May.

Airport forced to take province aside

After the zoning order was announced, and city staff left scrambling to put the planning direction into action, officials at Toronto Pearson Airport were forced to intervene.

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Staff with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, the group in charge of Pearson, contacted the province to explain the building was in an area used as an emergency flight path and that its height could impact their operations, sources told Global News.

The province was effectively told they had allowed a developer to build a skyscraper in the middle of a flightpath relied upon by the country’s busiest airport.

“In response to feedback from the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) regarding its proximity to Pearson Airport, the former minister amended this MZO to remove the northern site located at 5645 Hurontario Street,” a spokesperson for the Ford government confirmed.

Neither the GTAA nor Transport Canada, the federal body that regulates airports, would comment on the specifics.

“The GTAA continues to have conversations with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing related to municipal issues, as well as zoning issues, affecting the airport,” the airport authority said.

A map of the area where the tower would have been built. Government of Ontario / Screenshot

In August, after being put right by the airport, the Ford government quietly amended the MZO it had issued in May. The government did not explain its reasoning for the changes at the time either publicly or to local officials.

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The updated zoning order removed any reference to the address beside the airport, effectively killing any chance of the developer fast-tracking their proposal.

Zoning orders under scrutiny

As the Ford government struggles to move on and recover from the Greenbelt scandal, MZOs threaten to be the province’s next headache.

Since the scandal claimed two ministers and several staffers, the province has reversed its controversial decision to swap land out of the Greenbelt and another plan to force some cities to expand their boundaries.

With provincial planning policy in reverse, and the newly-appointed Minister of Housing trying to wipe the slate clean, opposition politicians are hoping to force the government into another U-turn, this time over 100-plus zoning orders.

Recently, the NDP released a list of 18 MZOs that were granted to development projects the party said are linked to people who were guests at the wedding of  Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s daughter. The 18 MZOs issued to wedding guests are the same number of zoning orders handed out by the Liberals over 15 years in government.

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“From the Greenbelt grab to forced urban boundary expansions to MZOs, Ford has a deeply troubling pattern of putting his friends ahead of everyone else,” Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the province said the housing minister is reviewing all MZOs issued by the government.

“In support of Ontario’s goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031, particularly when it comes to building more homes near transit, the former Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing issued a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) for the sites located at 3355 and 5645 Hurontario Street,” the spokesperson said.

“As Minister Calandra stated, we are undergoing a full review of Minister’s Zoning Orders to ensure they support the province’s goals of getting shovels in the ground faster to build at least 1.5 million homes by 2031.”

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