In light of the current pandemic, many people are rightly worried about our families, our communities and our economic security. But while we have tried our best to look after each other, the Government of Ontario is exploiting our fear and distraction to pursue a dubious agenda, including curtailing our democratic rights!
The Government of Ontario has been approving Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) to expedite development projects. While the legal effect is the same as a zoning by-law, the process is entirely hidden from public view – no public notice, no public meetings, no information provided and no right to appeal the approval.
What about the public’s right to know about proposed major development projects before the principle of development is established? What about our right to question the proponents at public meetings, and to explain concerns to local Councils before planning decisions are made? What about our right to appeal such decisions as provided under The Planning Act?
Even more importantly, the Ontario public is largely unaware that this is even happening!
What Zoning Orders Can Do
MZOs have been used sparingly by past governments, most often to control unfettered land development where local municipal land use controls were either deficient or non-existent.
But MZOs can be used to approve development projects which otherwise clearly contravene existing County and Municipal Official Plans and zoning by-laws.
MZOs create the appearance of political bias in favour of the “chosen” landowner(s), and can create huge windfall profits for the “chosen” landowner(s) as soon as the MZO is approved.
Democratic Rights Denied
Exploiting the lack of normal public meetings, and the lack of public and media attention about significant planning issues, due to the immense distraction of the COVID 19 pandemic, is a sad and troubling denial of our democratic process in Ontario.
That this behaviour has been supported by some of our local Municipal Councils, with the encouragement of our Provincial government, as a supposed means to economic recovery from the pandemic, is even more disturbing.
Sadly, the use of disasters to provide cover for the most dubious legislative agendas is not a new phenomenon. Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein noted this in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
And the recent gutting of Environmental legislation under Bill 197, The COVID 19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020, has paved the way towards major highway construction through the Greenbelt, possibly even before the required Environmental Assessment is completed.
Recent Examples Within Simcoe County
1) The Zoning Order request for the McLean Farm subdivision on Penetanguishene Road (Oro-Medonte Twp.) would allow a suburban sprawl subdivision of over 2,500 residents, right on Barrie’s eastern border, and it was endorsed by the Township and the County. The City of Barrie was not formally consulted before this request was considered and is also opposing this project. One hundred and thirty-three acres of Prime Agricultural Land will be paved over if it proceeds.
2) The County of Simcoe asked for a Zoning Order for a proposed waste processing facility in the middle of a large County forest on Horseshoe Valley Road (Springwater Twp.). Substantial concerns about the County’s environmental studies were raised in the appeal of this project to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). Yet the County sought a Zoning Order to terminate the ongoing appeal process, where it is also the proponent of the project, instead of defending its’ decision in a public forum. Fortunately, Minister Steve Clark announced on August 21, 2020, that “No projects currently going through the Local Planning and Appeals Tribunal process are being considered,” pointing to the County’s ERRC project as an example. He further said, “We’re going to let that process run its course at the LPAT, but we are going to work with local communities.”
A Way Forward
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need new thinking about our real societal needs and values, not fall back on old ideas to “rev up the economic engine’’ and be “open for business’’, at any cost. We should be “Investing in People, Investing in Nature and Investing in Communities”, as recently proposed by Just Recovery Simcoe.
No level of government should treat both established environmental and planning policies and regulations and public involvement in the land use planning process as annoying nuisances which need to be avoided, ignored or trampled on.
Please join Ontario Nature in urging the Government of Ontario to curtail its use of Minister’s Zoning Orders for land-use planning. As Ontario deals with COVID-19 and prepares for our recovery, the focus should be on enhancing community resilience to climate change and potential future pandemics.
Alan McNair is the Conservation Chair for Nature Barrie, a naturalist and conservation organization that’s a member of Ontario Nature’s Nature Network and was founded in 1951 as the Brereton Field Naturalists’ Club. He worked as a professional land use planner in Ontario from 1970 to 2019. He was Huronia Region Director for Ontario Nature from 2000 to 2007 and is a board member of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.