Corp Comm Connects

Vaughan councillors say they lack planning power, Ontario's housing minister says they’re in ‘driver’s seat’

'There is a tribunal system, a court system, that appeals decisions of Council and staff, and that's not in our hands'
July 30, 2021
Dina Al-Shibeeb

This is part two of a three-part series looking at what is driving housing intensification in Vaughan. Click the link to read the first article.

Vaughan councillors, who face constant deputations from residents opposing housing developments they deem contrary to municipal planning policies, say they don’t have the leverage to use their full powers.

But Ontario's housing minister, Steve Clark, who has been under fire at times for issuing minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) that circumvent local planning processes, said in an exclusive interview municipal councillors are in the “driver’s seat” regarding development.

To Clark, the province’s population intensification goals aren’t a rigid, top-down command. The Tory government has pushed MZOs to expedite construction amid a supply shortage, he said.

Vaughan councillors say they’re losing their planning clout as their endorsement of MZOs are non-binding.

For example, in late 2020, the councillors backed an MZO for a building that promised 10 per cent of units would be for affordable housing, but the end result was different.

“I think I supported two MZOs, because one went through a full public hearing and went through the proper process. The other one I supported because it was supposed to be at 10 per cent affordable housing components -- well, that disappeared,” Coun. Marilyn Iafrate said. “The minister never put that in his MZO.”

But Clark defended the use of MZOs:

“There's been times where I've kicked it back to the local council.”

In Vaughan, where there have been MZOs touching environmentally-sensitive areas, Clark added: “The people that are in the driver's seat are the municipalities.”

Beyond MZOs, councillors and residents also fear developers, who generally have more money to spend on legal fees and seasoned lawyers, and may opt to resolve disagreements at the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT).

“I understand some of the frustrations,” Clark said when asked about residents fighting to prevent higher density development in older, suburban neighbourhoods or calling for “fair intensification” to prevent traffic gridlock -- often their chief complaint.

“All of the policies we put forward as a government allow local communities to have a mix of housing, and that was the one thing that we heard over and over again from all of our consultations,” he added.

Clark said the province wants to empower municipalities to determine what their communities priorities are -- whether it’s single-family homes, mixed development or the “missing middle.”

Coun. Tony Carella called Clark’s arguments “specious.”

“If a community wants low-rise and a builder comes in with a highrise proposal which meets provincial intensification policies, the local municipality would be ill-advised to refuse it because the refusal will be appealed to the OLT, where provincial policy takes precedence over any local opposition to the proposal,” Carella said.

“The city could spend a lot of money trying to give its citizens what they want, but in the end the builder gets what he wants because, in this situation, provincial policy is favourable to the builder,” Carella added.

Some councillors, including Rosanna DeFrancesca, have called for more drastic reforms.

She said the OLT must be axed to preserve councillors’ power to represent constituents in the face of developers who often have “big pockets.”

“There is a tribunal system, a court system, that appeals decisions of council and staff, and that's not in our hands,” DeFrancesca said.

Coun. Alan Shefman also expressed frustration with the province.

“The fundamental issue is the power to control local planning has been constantly chipped away throughout this government's term of office,” he said. “There are just so many examples -- MZOs, conservation authorities being limited, the new highway project, transportation oriented development requirements, requirement to project growth beyond a reasonable time frame -- I could go on.”

Clark said while he approved MZOs for about 3,000 acres, the province's plans will “grow the Greenbelt by 6,000 acres.”

He also pointed to the $28.5 billion spent on transit in York Region and Toronto, spending that would likely have to come with intensification to help pay the costs.

Shefman conceded the government has funded an “extraordinary amount” of critical transit.

“But this is all catch-up -- we are so far behind -- the Yonge North Subway extension should be operating now (and along Yonge Street).”