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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to reporters with MPP Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, in Toronto, on Sept. 10, 2018.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

It might seem like a humdrum post that mostly involves stickhandling the various gripes of small-town mayors. But Ontario’s current Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, has become one of the most prominent figures in Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet, partly through his use of previously obscure powers to approve development projects across the province while overriding planning and environmental rules.

They are known as ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs. Mr. Clark says he has issued them, and tabled legislation to make them even more powerful, to speed up sluggish local planning and spur economic growth, while accelerating the building of affordable housing and new long-term care beds. Opposition critics charge he is granting favours to developers who are generous Progressive Conservative donors.

Now, some of the 40 MZOs he has issued since 2019 – many more than his Liberal predecessors issued in an entire decade – are producing political headaches and legal fights. An MZO approving the paving of a protected wetland in Pickering, Ont., to allow for a warehouse is headed before a judge on Monday, even as potential tenant Amazon said Friday it was no longer interested in the contested site. A move to demolish heritage buildings in Toronto’s West Don Lands has also ended up in court. And after months of local opposition, Mr. Clark said this week he would rescind an MZO authorizing a massive Chinese-owned glass factory in Stratford, Ont.

The fuss does not seem to have chastened Mr. Clark. While he has launched consultations on his use of MZOs, he also issued six more of them this past week.

”The MZO tool has been something that has been used since the seventies. Yes, we’ve used it significantly more,” Mr. Clark told a news conference. “The Premier and I and our government believe that MZOs are a very valuable tool.”

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The Premier defended the practice in the Legislature, denying political donations play any role and vowing to keep issuing the orders.

“We will never stop issuing MZOs for the people of Ontario, the people that need housing. There are 40,000 people moving [into] the GTA, [the] fastest-growing region in North America,” Mr. Ford said. “And guess what, Mr. Speaker? If it was up to them [the Opposition] they’d be living in mud huts right now.”

The 60-year-old Mr. Clark, who declined to be interviewed, has long been a political animal.

A veteran PC MPP, he has served his Eastern Ontario riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes since 2010. In 1982, at just 22, he was elected mayor of his hometown of Brockville, Ont., a community of 22,000 on the St. Lawrence, about an hour’s drive south of Ottawa. He served three terms and was so popular the Brockville Recorder & Times, where he would later work as a circulation manager, once issued a newsroom edict against running too many photos of the “boy wonder” mayor.

Courted to run for the provincial Liberals under David Peterson in 1987 in the traditionally Tory riding, Mr. Clark instead launched an unsuccessful challenge against sitting MPP Bob Runciman for the PC nomination, amid a riding association feud.

Years later, Mr. Runciman would put that bad blood aside and become a mentor for Mr. Clark, hiring him as his executive assistant in 2006. Mr. Clark would then succeed him when Mr. Runciman left Queen’s Park for the Senate.

“He’s grown enormously since I first knew him, when he was the boy mayor,” said Mr. Runciman, a cabinet minister under PC premiers Frank Miller and Mike Harris, and now chairman of the St. Lawrence Parks Commission. “Public speaking was not his forte at all. ... He was pretty bad, pretty nervous. But he was like a rock star, no question about that.”

While under his wing, Mr. Runciman said, Mr. Clark not only polished his speaking skills, he also inherited Mr. Runciman’s intense impatience with red tape. Mr. Clark told the local paper recently that its editors had criticized him while he was mayor for acting too slowly. Now, his critics accuse of him moving too fast.

The speed of the MZOs, welcomed by a development industry that has long complained about approval bottlenecks, has created its own problems. Last week, the government tabled changes to further boost the power of MZOs that would allow them to override even the province’s own Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), usually the authority on planning.

The bill, which would be retroactive, takes aim at a court challenge launched last year by two environmental groups against an MZO that allows the paving over of protected wetlands in Pickering, near Duffins Creek east of Toronto, to make way for a large warehouse. The groups, Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, had argued the MZO violates the PPS.

The land is owned by a subsidiary of the Triple Group of Companies, whose owners are large PC donors and are building a new casino nearby. They gave $4,800 to the party just days before the government introduced the retroactive amendments, the NDP said.

The environmentalists are in court Monday seeking a temporary order to block work on the warehouse site until their case is heard.

But on Friday, online retailer Amazon, which the CBC had identified as the site’s future tenant this week, said it was no longer interested. Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan, who had championed the project, said it was now time “to pause any immediate disruption to the wetlands.” Adam Wilson, a spokesman for Mr. Clark, said the minister would ask local officials if they want the MZO altered to exclude the wetlands.

These same wetlands were also at the centre of debate last year, when the government stripped local conservation authorities of the power to deny permits for developers granted an MZO.

Earlier on Friday, facing a government-imposed end-of-day deadline, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which had said it would issue the permit for the Pickering site only “under duress,” voted to add in conditions to mitigate the environmental damage, such as pledges to create wetlands elsewhere. A lawyer for the developers opposed some of the conditions. They can now appeal them to the Minister of Natural Resources or a provincial tribunal.

Critics say MZOs put too much power over local decisions in the minister’s hands. But Mr. Clark says every MZO on land the province doesn’t own comes at the request of a local municipality.

However, critics say some of those local decisions have been made with limited public input amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the developers who push local councils to approve their MZO requests, they say, in some cases over objections from municipal planners.

“What it’s setting loose is just a frenzy among developers to line up to get their favourite thing MZO’d,” said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. “So eventually, you’ll be in a situation where you’ve got everyone looking for every single planning decision to be made by the minister.”

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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