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COLUMN: Provincial zoning orders taking authority away from local governments

Local governments should be able to make their own planning decisions on residential, commercial, industrial and institutional development
Queen's Park Toronto is shown in a file photo. Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative

Ontario municipalities should be greatly concerned about the province’s apparent enthusiasm for using ministerial zoning orders (MZOs).

Local governments should be able to make their own planning decisions on residential developments, commercial projects, industrial progress and institutional expansion  without being overruled by Queen’s Park and having no avenue for appeal, often before their planning process really begins.

MZOs are in the news again because Amazon was reportedly looking to convert some Pickering wetland into all-important warehouse space, as if the retail giant isn’t filling up enough warehouses in Ontario in these days of online ordering, returns and re-ordering. Amazon conveniently withdrew its interest once it became public, but the province’s zeal to help the process with an MZO is troubling.

Since 2019, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has used 40 MZOs. That’s more than the previously governing Liberals issued during their last decade in power.

Premier Doug Ford has defended the use of MZOs, saying they pave the way for essential development, such as housing.

Both Clark and Ford have said they will not stop using MZOs.

That particular planning hammer was contemplated to further a proposed residential development in Oro-Medonte Township which touched on Barrie  a 133-acre farm property at 121 Penetanguishene Rd. that was to become seniors and long-term care space, affordable housing and parkland.

Oro-Medonte Township council supported the MZO to hurry the planning process along, but Barrie didn’t.

Andrea Miller, the city’s general manager of infrastructure and growth management, called the MZO “essentially an end-run on local planning and transparent decisions that are made in the public interest.”

Clark eventually rejected the MZO, without giving a reason, and Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes said that decision could certainly delay the project, that the process could now take a decade.

That means, at the very least, a public meeting, a planning staff report and council consideration.

And an opportunity for people who live near proposed developments to ask questions, get clarity on project details, suggest alternatives or reject it, as should be their right in a free and democratic community. 

Also for the locally elected members of council to make the final decision.

Voters might not always like who gets elected, but these councillors do have a mandate  whether it be large, small or somewhere in between. They actually have the responsibility to make tough decisions, because voters have given it to them.

MZOs should not be taking that away from local councillors.

Bad enough Ontario has the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), formerly the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which can run roughshod over local government planning decisions. Maybe it’s worse that MZOs cannot be appealed to LPAT.

In a city like Barrie, just about every rezoning or re-designation (Official Plan) or site plan for a development of any size or type  residential, commercial, etc.  faces some sort of opposition, even in the early stages of the planning process.

A virtual neighbourhood meeting last January about a proposed nine storey condominium on the Dundonald Street hill, for example, had more than 100 people registered to speak. The city has yet to receive a formal application for this project, although neighbourhood meetings are a pretty good indication of what’s in the works.

The bottom line is that local governments should be making the vast majority of local planning decisions, especially on important or large developments.

These councillors are closest to the people they represent, know locals needs and wants, know their communities.

If they’re not making these decisions, why do local councils exist?

Voter turnout in Barrie’s 2018 city election was 30 per cent. That can only get worse if residents think decisions on important local matters are being made by the province. 

Bob Bruton covers city council for BarrieToday.