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MZO approvals have skyrocketed under Ford government: report

From March 2019 to March 2021, province issued 44 minister's zoning orders; government had previously issued about one per year on average
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, confers with Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Paul Calandra, at Queen's Park, in Toronto, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

After two years, the provincial government has neglected the vast majority of Ontario's auditor general's recommendations on how it could improve land-use planning.

The government has made "little or no progress" toward implementing 92 per cent of the auditor's recommendations from its 2021 look at land-use planning in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the overall suggestions the oversight officer made in that report remain the furthest from fruition of any of the audits it published that year.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing promised to either implement, consider implementing, or take into account most of the dozen recommendations the auditor general made in its 2021 land-use planning audit, but "put on hold" those actions as the government reviews a pair of the province's key development-guiding plans, according to a followup report released on Wednesday.

The auditor general's office released follow-up reports to its 2021 audits in tandem with its 2023 annual report on Thursday. It publishes follow-ups to its audits two years after their initial release.

In the 2021 land-use planning report, then-auditor general Bonnie Lysyk explained that she found the province's Growth Plan was being undermined by "numerous changes to land-use planning policies," poor collaboration between the housing ministry and its partners responsible for infrastructure planning, and the government's ramped-up use of minister's zoning orders (MZOs).

The Growth Plan is the provincial government's overarching land-use planning policy for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the area encompassing Toronto, its greater area, and land that loops around the western edge of Lake Ontario, including where the majority of the province's population lives.

The government is reviewing the Growth Plan and the Provincial Policy Statement, a provincewide land-use-planning policy, and has suggested it may revoke the former, transferring elements from it to the latter.

An MZO is a tool the provincial government can use to overrule or bypass bylaws, planning decisions or processes that would otherwise have to be followed.

In a two-year period spanning from March 2019 to March 2021 that the auditor general's office highlighted in its 2021 land-use planning report, the Ford government issued 44 MZOs. Before then, the government had issued about one MZO a year, on average, according to the auditor's report. To date, the Ford government has issued more than 100 MZOs.

In the 2021 land-use planning report, the auditor general raised concerns about the lack of transparency around how MZOs are issued and the disruption they caused to other development plans, some of which "took years" for municipalities to create. Of the four recommendations in the 2021 land-use planning report that pertained to the issuance of MZOs, the housing ministry had not promised to implement any of them.

Ontario's auditor general's office is currently working on a special MZO-specific audit, looking at the "process of selecting and approving" them. 

Its work will largely be done under Shelley Spence, whose appointment as the province's next auditor general for the next 10 years, beginning in January, was approved by MPPs on Wednesday.

The government has teased that it may soon walk back or changes some of its previously issued MZOs. Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra has promised to soon unveil a "use it or lose it" policy for MZOs to ensure developments they're afforded to actually utilize them.

A bill the government passed earlier this week, just before the legislature rose for its two-and-a-half-month winter break, also included law changes to provide the government a legal shield in the event it revokes or revises MZOs it's issued.

Any MZO reversals would be the latest in a series of development- and planning-related policy walk backs by the government, coming after its undoing of its Greenbelt removals and many of its modifications to a dozen municipalities' official plans.

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Charlie Pinkerton

About the Author: Charlie Pinkerton

Charlie has covered politics since 2018, covering Queen's Park since 2021. Instead of running for mayor of Toronto, he helped launch the Trillium in 2023.
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