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Ontario issues orders to fast-track developments in Richmond Hill, Markham amid rising criticism
April 19, 2022

On the eve of Good Friday, Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives issued two special zoning orders that Richmond Hill and Markham council members say will fast-track residential developments proposed for two transit-oriented communities (TOCs) along the Yonge North Subway Extension in both municipalities.

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark announced the approval of two zoning orders in the evening of April 14. The controversial planned developments in the two areas located on both sides of Hwy. 407 at Yonge Street face rising criticism from multiple resident groups from across the GTA -- arguing the developments would make the areas unlivable -- and Markham council had sent a letter opposing the plan.

Three local council members said the zoning orders are called enhanced minister's zoning orders (EMZOs). No government spokesperson was available to answer questions about these zoning orders.

An EMZO is a newly added tool used to support and expedite the delivery of government priorities, including transit-oriented communities, affordable housing and long-term care homes by removing potential barriers and approval delays.

The tool has been used at least once, to fast-track the construction of a new hospital in Mississauga.

Similar to an MZO, which allows the minister to rule on how a piece of land is to be used in the province, with no chance of appeal, an EMZO also allows the minister to remove municipal use of site plan control.

Richmond Hill and Markham councils received the province’s notice right before going into a four-day Easter weekend, just months after Infrastructure Ontario released the province’s plans for the two transit-oriented communities.

The plans posted on the government's website would bring 67 towers -- some up to 80 storeys tall -- to a combined 45.5-hectare area in Richmond Hill and Markham, separated by Hwy. 407.

In Richmond Hill, the High Tech TOC -- locally known as Richmond Hill Centre -- will see 33 towers ranging in height from 40 to 80 storeys. In Markham, the Bridge TOC -- locally known as Langstaff Gateway -- will see 31 residential towers and three standalone office building with a range of 15 to 80 storeys, according to the plans.

The large-scale development plan would double the population density and halve the jobs that had been previously planned for these two areas by the two municipalities and turn what was intended to be mixed-use hubs into mostly residential areas.

“I’m still shocked by it,” Richmond Hill resident John Li said. “It completely bypassed the residents. They know they cannot pass this one through the regular planning process because no professionals will support this. That’s why these EMZOs came in.”

Li wrote several letters to the premier's office, demanding the government rescind its plan for the two transit-oriented communities. A dozen residents groups from across the GTA have shown support for the letter.

According to EMZOs, there is no minimum requirement for affordable rental or ownership housing units for the two TOCs and both sites will be exempt from requirements of the site plan approval process. These matters may be dealt with by agreement between landowners and municipalities.

In a previous interview with the Toronto Star, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said a transit-oriented community is a place where people will wake up in the morning, take an elevator down, perhaps drop off their child at daycare, access a (transit) station, go to work, come back home on transit and pick up something at the local grocery store for dinner.”

Li said the government's plan for the TOCs failed to provide sufficient employment opportunities, infrastructure and facilities such as parks, schools and community centres, which areĀ  necessary to make it a livable community.

Ontario’s Housing Minister Steve Clark did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the approval of the two special zoning orders.

A Richmond Hill staff report says the province had previously advised the city the High Tech TOC proposal is final for the purpose of developing zoning permission and it is not seeking council direction on the EMZO.

“I'm not surprised by it because we know that this has been in the works for quite some time. We're going to have to sit down and look at it carefully and look at all the details of what's in it and what are the implications for our community,” Richmond Hill Mayor David West said, noting the process has very much been driven by the province.

Transit-oriented communities are mixed-use locations that include residential and commercial buildings, parks, community centres and more. The province has plans to build them around new transit and subway nodes.

“Democracy dies through a series of acts done in the cover of night,” Graham Churchill wrote about the timing of the EMZOs approval.

“At a time when Canada is fighting to help Ukraine retain its democracy against the rule of an autocrat, we have lost sight that we are losing our democracy to autocracy right here in Ontario,” he added.

Details of the plans for the transit-oriented communities were kept secret as senior staff with the two cities and York Region were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements with the province.

The City of Markham wrote an official letter to the province opposing the Bridge TOC, raising concerns about inadequate non-residential uses and civic uses, and insufficient parkland.

“Disappointed but not unexpected,” Richmond Hill Coun. Godwin Chan said of the EMZO issued for the High Tech area located in his ward.

Chan said he was disappointed that the province is taking over the planning in the area, which the city has worked on for more than 10 years.

A Torstar investigation previously looked into Ontario’s use of the zoning tool and found that they are increasingly benefiting a select group of prominent land developers with strong ties to municipal leaders and the Ontario PC Party.