The land-use planning scandal that has rocked Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has revealed how the province utilized all manner of regulatory tools to force more housing on cities and towns – removing land from the protected area known as the Greenbelt, expanding urban boundaries and issuing special decrees known as minister’s zoning orders.
But a Globe and Mail analysis has uncovered a fourth, less discussed mechanism: The Ford government imposed two dozen policy changes on the city of Hamilton and the regions of Halton, Peel and York by rewriting their official plans – documents that guide what gets built and where. It altered local planning decisions by, among other things, making lands zoned for commercial use available for housing and foisting greater height limits on residential buildings, documents show.
When compared with the 7,400 hectares of farmland the province unilaterally added to the urban boundaries of the four municipalities, the policy changes seem modest. But regional councils opposed them, largely because of their outsized negative impact on local communities.
Steve Clark, then the province’s housing minister, oversaw last year’s revisions of the official plans, including the policy changes. He has since resigned, and his successor, Paul Calandra, has pledged to reverse the revisions. He asked mayors in October to tell him by Thursday what changes they want to keep.
Alexandru Cioban, a spokesman for Mr. Calandra, said municipalities are in the best position to understand the “unique needs and concerns of their communities.”
However, many of these municipalities are part of much larger regional governments that have their own planning departments. Critics say by asking municipal mayors to sign off on his predecessor’s changes, Mr. Calandra bypassed the regions’ decision-making role in their own official plans.
“It’s clearly an end run around the regional councils,” said Victor Doyle, a former senior Ontario government planner.
Political staff in Mr. Clark’s office made the changes at the request of consultants and lawyers representing property developers, according to a Globe review of thousands of internal government records obtained by the advocacy group Environmental Defence through a freedom of information request, as well as letters requesting the changes posted on the province’s environmental registry and the municipalities’ official plans.
The documents shed light on how directives from political staff converted just under 200 hectares of employment lands – areas set aside for commercial or industrial purposes – to residential use and rezoned small parcels to increase density and height limits. The Housing Minister’s own bureaucrats opposed some of the changes. In two official plans – Hamilton’s and York Region’s – political staff copied and pasted the developers’ requested wording into the official plan.
In one example, Ryan Amato, Mr. Clark’s chief of staff at the time, invited the proponent of a condominium project in Ancaster, a town in Hamilton, to a meeting. Mr. Amato asked Matt Johnston, a principal at planning firm Urban Solutions, to “verify his comfort level” with the government’s proposed changes to Hamilton’s official plan, according to the Integrity Commissioner’s report on the now-cancelled Greenbelt carveouts, the subject of a continuing RCMP investigation.
Mr. Johnston was seeking the go-ahead to build an eight-storey condo building in Ancaster’s heritage neighbourhood, well above the permitted height limit of 2½ storeys, on behalf of developers Sergio Manchia and Frank Spallacci. Mr. Manchia, a Progressive Conservative fundraiser, is also a co-founder of Urban Solutions but has retired from consulting.
In November, 2022 – just days after Mr. Amato met with Mr. Johnston – the Ontario government revised Hamilton’s official plan.
In response to questions from The Globe, Mr. Johnston said he was asked at the meeting whether he agreed with the province’s proposed changes for the condo building in Ancaster. “Given that I had recommended the changes,” he said, “I obviously agreed.”
His request for the additional height for the project was pasted, word for word, into Hamilton’s official plan, the documents show.
Prior to the province’s revision of Hamilton’s official plan, the developers appealed the city’s rejection of the condo project to the Ontario Land Tribunal, the provincial entity that adjudicates land-use planning matters. The city settled because council believed it did not have a chance of winning.
“Why would we spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars and staff time in an appeal when the fix is in?” Councillor Craig Cassar told The Globe.
At a Hamilton planning committee meeting in November, councillors voted not to reverse the policy change because of the binding settlement at the tribunal.
Mr. Amato also met in October, 2022, with lobbyist Nico Fidani-Diker, a former aide to Premier Doug Ford, regarding another policy change to an official plan. Mr. Amato discussed “three or four properties in the Halton area” on behalf of Mr. Fidani-Diker’s client Penta Properties, now known as Alinea Group Holdings, the Integrity Commissioner’s report says.
Penta was seeking approvals to build housing on three of its properties in Burlington, including a 71.5-hectare swath of lands that the regional government had designated for employment and commercial purposes. Planning staff in Halton Region opposed the requests, citing concerns that reducing the supply of employment lands could jeopardize the city’s job-creation targets, according to the internal government records.
Mr. Clark’s office gave Penta the green light. Burlington councillors unanimously voted in November to retain the province’s changes.
Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said in an interview that she supports the province’s move to bypass the regional council. “If you look at the kind of communities we foresee for the future, it is about mixed use,” she said. “It’s about being able to come out the door of your house or your condo and walk to a community centre, to a park, to retail and to have jobs close by.”
In another example of a policy change, Katarzyna Sliwa, a lawyer for Flato Developments Inc. and its business partner Wyview Group requested revisions to York Region’s official plan to “assist with servicing challenges” on two properties in Nobleton, in King Township, according to her letter posted on the environmental registry. Houses cannot be built on the properties because of a lack of municipal water and sewage services.
Mr. Clark’s office amended York’s official plan to say communal sewage and water services, which are typically provided by the municipality, can be provided by the private sector.
Flato was founded by Shakir Rehmatullah, a friend of the Premier’s who attended his daughter’s wedding last year. Flato is the development partner on the Nobleton properties. Wyview owns the land.
Mr. Ford has said he was not involved in any of the land-use decisions. But The Globe has reported that the Premier’s Office asked for changes to allow development to take place on the Nobleton properties, according to government e-mails.
Officials in King Township have not said whether they plan to reverse the change made by the province.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers