In another step towards undoing a series of its housing development-related moves from the last year, the Ford government introduced a bill on Thursday to walk back changes it made to a dozen municipalities' official plans.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra's newest legislation, the Planning Statute Law Amendment Act, would reverse the vast majority of the modifications the province made to the official plans of Barrie, Belleville, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa, Peterborough, Wellington County, Halton, Niagara, Peel, Waterloo and York.
Calandra promised the surprising reversal on Oct. 23, saying he "was just not comfortable" with the process carried out under his predecessor that led the province to modify the plans the cities and regions submitted.
"In some instances, I just think there was too much involvement from the minister's office, individuals within the minister's office," Calandra added.
The housing minister’s new legislation also signals that minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) could be next on the chopping block.
Calandra’s bill would “introduce immunity provisions to help mitigate legal risk related to the making, amending or revoking of (MZOs),” according to the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO) posting published in tandem with the bill.
An MZO allows a development to bypass various approvals that a project typically needs. Since 2019, the Ford government has signed off on more than 100 MZOs since 2019 — a far greater number than any past government.
“While no specific changes to MZOs are currently being made, this provision would help mitigate risk should revocations be necessary as the ministry reviews a use it or lose it policy,” the ERO posting published on Thursday says.
On Oct. 23, Calandra said a review of MZOs was “almost complete,” and that he was “not concerned with” most that have been given.
Calandra’s U-turn on the government's official plan changes came just over a month after Premier Doug Ford apologized for removing property from the Greenbelt and promised to re-protect those lands.
The Ford government’s Greenbelt removal reversal bill was introduced on Oct. 16. A committee of MPPs has been assigned to study it, but hasn’t started that work yet.
Some of the same staff who either oversaw the land-selection process for the Greenbelt removals — or worked close to it — played a part in the provincial government’s official plan edits as well.
Like with the controversy-sunk Greenbelt removals, many of the Ford government’s modifications to municipalities’ official plans would have opened up more land for housing to be built. Each of the now planned-to-be-reversed policies would have significantly benefited developers owning the unprotected — or less significantly protected — lands.
Many of the Greenbelt developers were found in the combined work of journalists and two provincial watchdogs to either have pre-existing personal ties to Ford or others in his government or have been major PC Party donors. The Greenbelt developers had been positioned to benefit to the tune of $8.3-billion-plus, Ontario’s auditor general estimated, before Ford’s reversal.
Under the Planning Statute Law Amendment Act, Calandra’s newest bill, most — but not all — of the modifications the provincial government made to the 12 municipalities’ official plans would be undone.
Construction projects for which building permits have already been granted would continue and other developments going through the planning process may also go forward, according to a backgrounder on the bill that the government published.
Changes to Halton’s and Peel’s plans that the province made in anticipation of the future construction of Highway 413 aren’t being reversed either, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s backgrounder says.
Other reasons why provincially made changes would be maintained by the bill that the ministry listed include to: protect the Greenbelt and sources of drinking water; respect Indigenous burial sites; and ensure homes and long-term care facilities are appropriately separated from odours and noise.
Materials the government published on Thursday also mention that the do-overs proposed in Calandra’s bill aren’t necessarily set in stone.
“The affected municipalities have been given until Dec. 7, 2023 to submit information about circumstances or projects that are already underway and on any changes that the municipality would like to see made to the official plan based on the original modifications,” the government’s backgrounder said.
Calandra is relying on the mayors of the affected municipalities to take care of submitting these to his ministry, according to a letter he wrote them two weeks ago.
“Heads of council may choose to seek a council endorsement of their proposed changes, but that is not required,” Calandra wrote in his Nov. 2 letter, which mentioned that councils’ approvals of mayors’ submissions aren’t required because of the tight time frame of the reversals.
“Please rest assured that municipal feedback received during the 45-day window, and through consultation on the legislation, will be carefully considered to determine the best approach for moving forward, including if further legislative steps or the use of other provincial tools are required,” said the housing minister’s letter, which The Trillium reported on the day after it was sent.
Calandra also asked mayors on Nov. 2 to tell his ministry how much it spent on planning costs, as a result of the provincial government’s change in tack. As well, he asked them to prioritize increasing density, “especially near transit,” which Calandra echoed through a news release on Thursday.