The Ontario government has introduced a promised bill to reverse the unilateral changes it made to the official plans of a dozen municipalities that would have forced them to earmark thousands of additional hectares of farmland for development.
But Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra is still soliciting requests from mayors who want to keep some of the government’s top-down changes in place.
Mr. Calandra tabled a bill in the legislature on Thursday that would strip out almost all of the revisions the province made to the official plans of Halton, Peel, Waterloo and York Regions, and to those in Barrie, Belleville, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa, Peterborough and Wellington County.
The changes to be reversed would have put 11,000 extra hectares of land into the development queue, altering municipal official plans that were meant to accommodate growth until 2051.
That dwarfs the 3,000 hectares the province carved out from its protected Greenbelt last year, a move that created a potential multibillion-dollar windfall for a small group of connected developers and sparked a scandal that has forced two cabinet ministers to quit and prompted an RCMP probe.
On Oct. 23, a month after Premier Doug Ford reversed those Greenbelt changes amid a growing backlash, Mr. Calandra pledged to undo the government’s revisions to the official plans, saying these changes were made with too much involvement from political staff.
However, the minister has said mayors who wish to keep some of the province’s changes to their municipalities’ official plans can submit requests to do so by Dec. 7. They must also submit notice of any affected projects that are already under way to exempt them from the urban boundary reversals.
The government said Thursday the province would review these requests and consult municipalities on the best way to implement them, which could include further legislation.
Already, Gord Krantz, the mayor of Milton, west of Toronto, has said he will ask for all of the province’s extra urban boundary extensions in his municipality to be reinstated. Halton Region, of which Milton is a part, had voted to freeze its urban boundaries to preserve farmland and grow more densely in existing built-up areas before the province overruled its plan. Mr. Krantz has said his town needs the added land for housing and for office space, to continue its fast pace of growth.
The advocacy group Environmental Defence has warned this new review process could see mayors, without council or regional approval, seek to restore provincial changes the group charges would only exacerbate urban sprawl and benefit land speculators. The group points to studies suggesting Ontario already had enough vacant land for housing.
Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles credited her own efforts for the government’s climbdown on the urban boundary expansions, saying it was a “hard-fought victory” against “the government’s nonsense approach to planning.”
Speaking on Thursday before the bill was unveiled, she said she would examine it closely because the government could not be trusted.
“I think they are leaving the door wide open,” Ms. Stiles told reporters of the province’s pledge to allow mayors to request that some boundary expansions are reinstated.
The province also said its bill would allow some other changes the province made to certain official plans to be maintained, such as provisions to protect the Greenbelt and sources of drinking water.
The bill would also maintain revisions made to plans in Hamilton, Belleville and Wellington County to require that if any unmarked cemetery or burial place is found, Indigenous communities with a known interest in the area are notified.
Plus, the bill would retain changes to official plans in Halton and Peel region that protect the potential path of the planned Highway 413, which would carve through Greenbelt land west of Toronto.
The proposed legislation also includes provisions meant to shield municipalities and the province – including former employees and cabinet ministers – from any litigation prompted by the reversal of the official plan changes, such as lawsuits from aggrieved developers.
It would bring in similar legal immunity provisions for any use, amendment or revoking of what are known as minister’s zoning orders (MZOs), which the government has used repeatedly to fast-track development. Mr. Calandra is reviewing the government’s use of MZOs. The province’s Auditor-General is also probing them.
Critics have charged that too many MZOs have gone to developers who have donated to the governing Progressive Conservatives.