Advocates, opposition slam Ontario government’s move to strengthen minister’s zoning power

Click to play video: 'Provincial zoning order could see large swath of Pickering wetlands destroyed'
Provincial zoning order could see large swath of Pickering wetlands destroyed
WATCH ABOVE: More than 55 acres of provincially significant wetland could be affected by a new Pickering development that has now been fast-tracked by the provincial government. The project would see 4-million square foot warehouse built on the site. Frazer Snowdon has more – Nov 3, 2020

A day after the Ford government introduced a bill in the Ontario legislature that could see processes changed for ministerial zoning powers, advocates and opposition politicians are slamming the move and allege it will benefit developers.

The proposed change was contained in Bill 257, which mainly deals with initiatives aimed at making it easier to expand broadband internet access through changes to different approvals.

In a joint statement by Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature and Ecojustice, the organizations said the proposed changes will allow the province’s minister of municipal affairs and housing to issue minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) that will give them powers to override principles contained in the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).

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The coalition said all lands outside of the Greenbelt and the PPS “will become vulnerable to development at the whim of the Province” and MZOs could be issued to speed up development projects that could destroy natural areas, including wetlands and farmland.

“Bill 257 illustrates the Ontario government’s willingness to go to great lengths to ensure developers can destroy even the most environmentally sensitive lands and do so without public consultation or comment,” the statement said.

“It represents an attack on the public’s constitutional right to seek judicial review of unlawful decisions. Moreover, the government is using the pandemic as a cover for its environmentally destructive actions, hiding this legislative amendment in a bill unrelated to the environment or land use planning.”

The Ontario NDP said in a statement on Friday the bill is “retroactively rewriting planning laws” that will give “unchecked power” and will benefit developers.

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The government’s legislative initiative comes at a time when concerns are being raised over the proposed, controversial development of a warehouse project located near Bayly Street in Pickering that many say would affect the Duffins Creek wetlands.

Advocates have said the lands are important for water filtration and support other parts of the ecosystem, including migrating birds.

The opposition party officials also said Bill 257 coincides with warnings contained in a part of a document containing advice from government lawyers that said the courts could potentially order the project stopped based on the process taken to date.

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) was in the process of reviewing a request to clear cut some of the lands for the development. It’s a process that normally takes three to six weeks, but a recent order from the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski directing it be approved by March 12.

The TRCA issued a statement on Friday and it said the organization has been “forced” to “interfere with and develop within a Provincially Significant Wetland and place fill and site grade” at the project site.

“TRCA’s Board of Directors and staff, using a science-based approach to decision making and TRCA’s living city policies, would ordinarily decline permission of such a permit,” the statement said.

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“TRCA’s Board of Directors must now, under duress, adhere to the Province’s legally mandated directive which conflicts with TRCA’s mandate to further the conservation, development, and management of natural resources in watersheds within our jurisdiction.”

Pickering city council voted to request a MZO in 2020, a process that avoids appeals and public consultations.

Set against the recent actions, the Ontario government showed a willingness in mid-February to include part of the Duffins Creek watershed under the provincial Greenbelt as part of a consultation on expansion. However, it’s not entirely clear how much of the watershed would be protected.

Municipal Affairs critic Jeff Burch highlighted a claim first raised in December that 19 out of 38 MZOs approved by the government will have benefits for developers with links to the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

“Doug Ford snuck an anti-environment, anti-municipality clause into an unrelated bill. We want it out. The Ford government must be stopped from bulldozing over our environment, ignoring their constitutional obligations, steamrolling over the will of municipalities and First Nations,” he said in the statement.

In a message on Twitter, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation issued a statement Friday afternoon condemning the decision to speed up approvals.

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“We are alarmed by the Ford government’s attacks on wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas across Ontario,” Chief Kelly LaRocca wrote, highlighting concerns raised by community members.

“The Province’s efforts to change the rules to help a developer demonstrate an absolute disregard for our Indigenous and Treaty Rights.”

In Toronto, a controversial MZO was issued in connection with the Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company property, located on Eastern Avenue near Cherry Street. In January, there was an attempted demolition of four historic buildings by the provincial government. Officials cited the need to conduct environmental remediation. It was temporarily halted through a court order and the government held a public consultation after that decision, which closed on Thursday.

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Documents obtained by Global News indicated there was a purchaser for the coveted downtown parcel of land. However, Minister Steve Clark subsequently insisted a final sale hasn’t occurred. To date, the purchaser cited in an Infrastructure Ontario heritage impact assessment hasn’t been revealed publicly and a definitive plan for the site hasn’t been widely shared despite multiple requests for information from members of the community and reporters.

Global News contacted Clark’s office to ask why the changes to the MZO process were contained in a bill on broadband internet, why it’s being done now, and what’s the goal of enacting the changes. However, a spokesperson largely ignored those questions.

“Our proposed change will ensure that priority projects that play a key role in our province’s economic recovery, located outside of the Greenbelt, do not face unnecessary barriers and delays after an MZO has been made,” Adam Wilson, Clark’s director of communications, said in a statement, noting a 30-day online consultation was posted on the Environmental Registry of Ontario on Thursday.

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He went on to say all MZOs issued by Clark and the government for non-provincially owed land have been made at the request of municipal councils.

With respect to the project in Pickering, he said it was among those requested and that the project will result in more than 10,000 jobs and bolster the Durham Region economy.

Wilson also went on to cite an environmental study for the project site. He said it found the existing wetland “is dominated by invasive species, is likely to continue to decline over time, and provide limited ecological functions.”

“The proponent and TRCA have entered into an agreement that will ensure the creation of ecological benefits that meet or exceed any loss to the natural system,” he said.

The TRCA statement said staff have identified conditions based on previously raised concerns and that the board will hold a hearing on the morning of March 12 to discuss the matter.

— With files from Frazer Snowdon

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