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National Observer: Ford donors benefit as fast-tracked developments override environmental concerns

In Agriculture
Feb 16th, 2021
MZO-enabled groundbreaking

Premier Doug Ford, fifth from left, at an August 2020 groundbreaking for an MZO-enabled project. Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski are at right. CNW Group/Walmart Canada

By Emma McIntosh National Observer 

The Ford government has used controversial special orders to allow developments on sites involving environmental concerns 14 times since 2018, an analysis by Canada’s National Observer has found.

In nine of those cases, the orders benefitted developers who donated $262,915 to the Progressive Conservatives and Ontario Proud, a third-party group that supported the PCs in the 2018 election, the analysis shows.

The directives — called Ministerial Zoning Orders, or MZOs ⁠— allow Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark to decide how a parcel of land can be used, overriding local planning and existing zoning rules. An area set aside for agriculture can become a new subdivision. A protected wetland where development is usually forbidden can become a warehouse.
“It’s Steve Clark’s new magic wand. He points, says, ‘Shazam,’ and suddenly there’s a new building there,” said Ontario NDP MPP Ian Arthur, then the party’s environment critic, in a phone interview in late January. (Arthur took on a different critic role on Feb. 1.)

“There’s no oversight… Make a donation, you’ll get your project.”

The orders have benefitted some of Ontario’s most prominent developers: the Cortellucci family, which controls an empire of companies in the Greater Toronto Area; the De Gasperis family, which controls the company Condrain Group and had a net worth of $1.66 billion in 2017; Peter Gilgan, the billionaire founder of Mattamy Homes; the Libfeld family, which runs Conservatory Group and had a net worth of $842 million in 2016; and Greek-Canadian billionaire Andreas Apostolopoulos’ Triple Group of Companies.

People with names matching those of executives and senior staff for the developers linked to the nine most controversial projects have collectively donated at least $112,915 to the party over the last three years, Elections Ontario records show.

Three companies involved in the nine developments also contributed a total of $150,000 in 2018 to the third-party political advocacy group Ontario Proud, which campaigned to help Ford’s Progressive Conservatives win that year’s provincial election.
Though the names match, the Observer cannot independently verify they are the same people. The Observer sent the donation findings to each company, and none were disputed. (Two people with common names were removed from the analysis.)

When asked whether the developers’ donation records played a role in the province’s decision to issue MZOs, Adam Wilson, a spokesperson for Clark, said in a statement the government issues the orders at the request of municipalities, or in cases where the land is owned by the province.

“The topic of donations has never come up in any conversations with proponents of projects that involve the issuance of an MZO,” Wilson said in the statement.

The Ford government has used ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, to override environmental concerns in 14 cases, an analysis by @natobserver shows. In many cases, developers who benefitted donated thousands to the PCs and Ontario Proud. #onpoli

“Requests for MZOs on non-provincial land come from local municipalities, and municipalities are not special interests nor are they donors.”

Political donations are common in industries that work with governments — they aren’t unique to Ontario or development. Developers often give generously during elections at all levels, including municipal. Several included in the Observer’s analysis also donated to the Ontario Liberal Party, for the most part prior to 2018.

MZOs cannot be appealed, and prior governments have used them sparingly. The Progressive Conservative government has issued 37 since 2018, more than the 16 granted by the previous Liberal government during its 15 years in power. The PCs also used a similar but slightly different mechanism to change the zoning of a piece of land in a 38th case.

Over the course of two months, Canada’s National Observer examined all 38 of these directives, using municipal planning documents and local news reports to identify the 14 cases where MZOs were used to push through projects where there were environmental concerns.

Some allow developers to pave over protected wetlands. Others involve endangered species. Several allow the loss of agricultural land, which environmental advocates say is detrimental to future food security and eliminates a key carbon sink to make way for urban sprawl.

Environmental concerns in and of themselves are not enough to block rezonings. And in some cases, the projects might have been important enough to warrant overriding them — several of the orders cleared the way for seniors long-term care facilities and one involved the production of urgently needed medical supplies. But in all cases where MZOs are used, members of the public are denied the opportunity to voice concerns or appeal.

Last year, the Ford government expanded its ability to use MZOs while also weakening environmental protections at other stages of the planning process.

The government introduced legislation over the summer that critics said will water down the environmental assessment process. In December, it went a step further by limiting the powers of conservation authorities, agencies that help ensure development in watersheds happens safely and without harming the environment.

Wilson defended the use of MZOs, saying they’re a tool the government uses to “get critical local projects like long-term care beds and affordable housing” moving faster. Wilson also noted the government is not issuing the orders for lands included in the protected Greenbelt. (In one case, Clark did issue an MZO for Greenbelt land in Aurora, Ont., but it applies to a section where some types of low-density development were already allowed.)

“MZOs are helping to give Ontario an economic boost on our road to recovery and are helping to create more than 26,000 jobs, 3,700 long-term care beds, 1,060 homes for seniors, and hundreds of affordable homes across Ontario,” Wilson said in the statement.

Though some MZOs did fast-track long-term care projects and affordable housing, others were used to approve other types of developments, like warehouses, market-price housing and a film studio.

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