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Feeling heat on MZOs, Ford government says it will add 6,000 acres to Ontario’s Greenbelt
June 17, 2021
Noor Javed

The province says it will add land to the protected Greenbelt to mitigate the environmental impact of a controversial zoning tool the government has used 45 times since it came into power.

In an announcement Wednesday morning, Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, said two acres of land will be added to the Greenbelt for every acre of land affected by Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs).

“We have looked at the 45 MZOs that we have done, and we’ve got about just under 3,000 acres of land,” Clark said in an interview. “So we will commit to protecting 6,000 acres of the Greenbelt.”

The commitment includes 890 acres (360 hectares) of environmentally sensitive wetlands in the North Gwillimbury Forest that will be added to the Greenbelt, Clark announced at a press conference in Georgina, just south of Lake Simcoe.

The announcement comes two days after a Torstar investigation showed MZOs are increasingly benefiting a select group of prominent land developers with strong ties to municipal leaders and the Ontario PC party.

It also comes with the next election less than a year away -- June 2, 2022 -- and a looming cabinet shuffle.

Over the past year, the Star has written extensively about the Ford government’s use of MZOs, a tool which takes precedence over any local or regional council planning decisions and can’t be appealed.

Clark said he will be issuing an MZO to prevent future development on the North Gwillimbury Forest land, which will now be under the stewardship of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

Jack Gibbons, the Chair of the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance, who has been fighting to protect this land for decades, called the announcement “fantastic.”

However, he said the land was already deemed undevelopable due to a 2019 Local Planning Appeal Tribunal decision that designated more than 99 per cent of the Maple Lake Estates lands as “Environmental Protection Area” and off-limits to development.

Gibbons says this announcement will take the land out of private hands and make it a public nature reserve. But he has concerns with tying this announcement to MZOs.

“The creation of a nature reserve is good news, but it doesn’t justify MZOs.”

A coalition of Lake Simcoe-based environmental groups said the announcement “rings hollow” given the government’s decision to proceed with the Bradford Bypass, a 16-km, four-to-six lane highway that will go through fertile farmland called the Holland Marsh in north York Region.

“So, it seems, while one hand of the government gives, the other hand so casually takes it away, and Lake Simcoe’s health hangs in the balance,” the coalition said in a release.

The government has been in public consultations to add land into the Greenbelt. Clark says they have received 5,500 responses to the online consultation.

“My commitment this morning, for every acre of land I have MZO’d or that I will MZO, we will protect two acres of land of the Greenbelt. We will have to work closely with my colleagues on the consultation to ensure we hit that mark.”

The Greenbelt is 800,000 hectares of permanently protected area of green space, farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds that surround the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

While the government has been adamant about protecting the Greenbelt, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority said 16 MZOs have been approved on lands that are regulated and contain valleys, floodplains or wetlands.

The government’s two-for-one acreage pledge applies to MZOs already awarded along with all future MZOs.

Clark’s ministry has not indicated how many MZO requests are currently under consideration.

Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager for Environmental Defence, said the announcement doesn’t address the “extraordinary misuse of MZOs to drive sprawl onto Ontario’s remaining farmland and natural areas.”

“The land that needs protecting is the land that developers have in their sights,” Pothen said. “Protecting land that nobody is seeking to have developed or land that is already off-limits for development has no net impact on the amount of habitat and farmland that remains.”

The Ford government has handed out 44 permanent MZOs since 2019. Last year alone, it issued 33 -- more than twice as many as the previous government did in 15 years.

Of 44 permanent MZOs issued in the past two years, 38 have gone to Toronto, the regions of York, Peel and Durham, and Simcoe County -- some of the wealthiest parts of the province, where population growth is expected to jump in coming decades and land is most expensive.

Requests for zoning orders are made to municipal councils. If a council votes in favour of the request, it’s submitted to Clark for a decision.

MZOs have been issued to municipalities, non-profit organizations and for projects on provincially-owned land. They have been used to approve such things as a glass factory, giant warehouses, nursing homes and large subdivisions.

But in the last seven months, zoning orders have been used almost exclusively to help private-sector companies and developers jump the queue and bypass the local planning process.

Sixteen of the 18 MZOs handed out since October have gone to developers, most of whom have connections to the Ontario PCs either through former party officials now acting as lobbyists, political donations or both.