Now that the Ford PCs’ developer-driven scheme has been exposed, will Peel councillors reverse their 11,000-acre urban boundary expansion?
After Doug Ford’s PC government was once again caught secretly colluding with developers to interfere with municipal land use policy, Peel councillors must now make a critical decision—will they reverse the 11,000-acre urban boundary expansion supported by all but one of the region’s local elected officials last year?
Documents obtained by Environmental Defence and Ecojustice, made public this week (obtained through a freedom of information search) exposed the latest scheme by Ford’s government to steamroll municipal planning decisions. Powerful developers, the documents show, were favoured by the PCs, who forced cities and regions to dramatically expand their urban boundary, despite local planning goals that tried to limit future growth to dense, transit friendly neighbourhoods in already developed areas.
Last week, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra announced his government will allow regions, towns and cities to reverse the controversial boundary expansions it forced on certain municipalities as part of its ambitious plan to bring 1.5 million new homes online by 2031.
Despite overwhelming public backlash and reams of data and research presented to councillors that showed Peel does not need to expand its urban boundary to accommodate its share of mandated growth, local elected officials, other than Annette Groves, caved to provincial pressure last year and voted for the massive 11,000-acre urban expansion.
The FOI documents show the pressure that was put on municipalities to expand involved behind-the-scenes dealings between the PC government and powerful sprawl developers.
“The process was one that I was just not comfortable with. I think there was just a little bit too much involvement from individuals within the previous minister’s office on the official plans in these areas,” Calandra admitted to reporters on October 23. He replaced disgraced former housing minister Steve Clark after Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner found he broke ethics rules when the Greenbelt land swap scandal was unfolding.
Since stepping into the role following Clark’s resignation two months ago, Calandra said he has made it “a priority to review past decisions.” This includes reassessing Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) — which he said has nearly been completed — and municipal official plans, “to ensure that they support our goal of building at least 1.5 million homes in a manner that maintains and reinforces public trust.”
“In reviewing how decisions were made regarding official plans, it is now clear that they failed to meet this test,” he acknowledged.
Last week Calandra announced that “as soon as I am able,” he will be introducing legislation that will reverse official plan decisions in several municipalities, including Peel Region. Additional regions named include Halton, Niagara and Wellington County, among others. The legislation will “wind back provincial changes to official plans and official plan amendments, except in circumstances where construction has begun or where doing so would contravene existing provincial legislation and regulation,” he explained. “This includes winding back changes to urban boundaries.”
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, currently on leave to run for the provincial Liberal leadership, told The Pointer through a spokesperson that Caledon regional councillors should take the lead in any decision to reverse the 11,000-acre urban boundary expansion she and all other members of council, except Groves, voted for last year. Crombie was heavily criticized when she entered the Liberal leadership race for suggesting she supports some Greenbelt land swaps for development. After a backlash from Liberals, who pointed out it was the Dalton McGuinty government that created the Greenbelt and enshrined its protection in legislation, Crombie walked back her comments.
Groves, who was a Caledon councillor last year when she was the only elected voice at the region who defended the overwhelming public position against expanding development into areas currently zoned for agriculture or designated as greenspace, is now the Town’s mayor.
The Pointer asked if she will reverse a decision that now appears to have involved an abuse of power by the Ford PCs. She said the Town is now reviewing its Official Plan, as decisions to support “community vitality and enhanced transit” will be made.
Even before boundary expansions became a controversial topic among elected officials and advocacy groups, the PC government had been abusing its authority under another planning mechanism, MZOs — a tool in the Planning Act used to streamline projects in rare circumstances, including emergencies and after extreme weather events — to quietly chisel away at farmland and greenspace across the province. Despite the expectation that MZOs be issued in special circumstances only, in the public’s best interest, between March 2019 and 2021, Ford’s government issued an unprecedented 44 MZOs, a number that has dramatically increased in the years since, most notably after the Housing Minister’s powers to issue these orders were expanded with the implementation of Bill 197.
Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced last week the PC government will be introducing legislation to reverse boundary expansion decisions it forced on municipalities last year.
(Government of Ontario)
Region of Niagara Chair Jim Bradley commended the government for its decision to reverse the changes that were applied to the official plans of several municipalities in Ontario, including Niagara. He added the decision demonstrates the Minister’s “commitment to engaging with local government across the province, as well as his respect for the autonomy of municipalities. By adopting this more collaborative approach to land use planning, the integrity of Niagara's Official Plan will be restored.
“This decision reflects a dedication to preserving the unique character of our communities and ensuring sustainable growth,” Bradley continued. “By reversing these changes, the provincial government has shown its commitment to striking a balance between development and the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage.”
In stark contrast the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), which is the lobby group of large sprawl developers, said it was “extremely disappointed” in the announcement, calling the PC decision a “setback” that will negatively impact the future of housing and employment-space supply over the next decade.
“It can take a decade or more to bring new housing supply to the market,” Dave Wilkes, BILD president and CEO, said in a statement. “[The] announcement to introduce legislation that, if approved, will rescind regional official plans and reverse urban boundary expansions in the regions of York, Peel and Halton. It will make the objective of building 1.5 million homes in the province by 2031 impossible.”
BILD cites the lack of housing supply and high demand as the driving force behind the housing affordability crisis in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The Association asserts the official plan changes that made additional land supply available through urban boundary expansions would have allowed “the addition of housing and employment spaces with a mix and density consistent with what the market is looking for” and “repealing these official plans will put regional and municipal decision-making relative to new development into a state of confusion, uncertainty and paralysis.”
“The repercussions of this unfortunate decision will effectively delay the addition of new housing and employment spaces throughout the next decade,” the Association stated, adding its members remain committed to working with the government to achieve the provincial target of building 1.5 million homes over the next decade.
“It is our understanding that the provincially approved official plans were subject to an extensive and exhaustive transparent public and stakeholder consultation process, which included postings to the Environmental Registry of Ontario,” Wilkes said. “Any adjustment made to the approved plans by the government were done to uphold the provinces’ own objectives for increased housing supply, choice and balanced growth.”
To ensure the reset plans match the PCs’ ambitions to build 1.5 million homes by 2031 as mandated under Bill 23 — especially now that the majority of municipalities have made their housing pledges — Calandra said his government will be asking impacted municipalities to submit changes and updates to their official plans to the Ministry within 45 days from the October 23 announcement date. This includes information on projects that are already underway. Acknowledging there will be financial implications to municipalities as a result of this decision, Calandra assured the PCs will “work with the impacted municipalities to assist with related planning and staffing costs.”
Proposed PC legislation would reverse official plan decisions in several municipalities, including Peel Region.
(The Pointer files)
Despite major pushback from residents citing concerns about planning and meeting the Region’s climate targets, in 2022 Peel councillors, other than Groves, ignored constituents, planning experts and environmental advocates, voting to approve the Official Plan to 2051, which included expanding the urban boundary by nearly 11,000 acres, encroaching into farmland and greenspace to accommodate development including subdivision-style sprawl. The approved plan expanded the Region’s urban boundary past Mayfield Road in Brampton and around the Village of Bolton in Caledon, adding about 4,400 hectares for future development. The decision came after the Province told the Region to adopt a strategy to accommodate its projected population and employment numbers for 2051. The move was part of a municipal comprehensive review, ironically mandated under smart growth legislation introduced by the former Liberal government almost two decades ago, called A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
The Act was amended by the Ford PCs who loosened specific density and intensification targets, making it easier for developers to swoop in, required the Region create a forecasted plan to 2051 to accommodate 700,000 more residents and 335,000 jobs the Province projects for Peel over that timeframe. At the time, the PC government warned municipalities if they did not submit their planning visions by the July 2022 deadline, the PCs had the option to step in and create a plan of its own.
A spokesperson from the Region noted staff are uncertain at this time what the announcement will mean for Peel and that it’s unclear whether it will have any impact on the current 11,000-acre boundary expansion.
“Regional staff are re-examining the modifications made by the Minister and will be consulting with local municipalities over the next few weeks to determine if there are some that are supported by Regional or local staff that are beneficial to continue to be included in the Peel Official Plan,” the spokesperson explained. “Following that, a recommendation report on the modifications will be brought forward to Regional Council before being forwarded to the Province.”
Mississauga Councillor Carolyn Parrish, who was chair of the Regional Planning and Growth Committee (PGC) when the urban boundary expansion motion was passed last year, raised concerns with the “rigid Provincially mandated policy framework,” which she said, during a committee meeting last year, “has removed the opportunity to stage Official Plan approvals of required new settlement expansions over several decades which has been afforded to Peel in previous long-range planning cycles.” The concerns around the pressures being felt by Ontario’s largest regional municipality at the time, to plan so far in advance at such a quick pace, were laid out in a letter attached to the Official Plan when it was sent off to the PC government.
In response to questions from The Pointer following the PC government’s announcement last week, Parrish said the Region’s boundary “was only expanded beyond what our staff agreed to as appropriate for Caledon, by 246 hectares, or 607.9 acres,” which she said was added by the PCs after the Region completed and filed its Official Plan amendments.
The staff recommendations were challenged by planning experts and advocates who provided research and land-use planning data that showed the suggested expansion is not needed to accommodate projected growth, unless sprawl replaced designs for compact, walkable, transit friendly urban planning.
The FOI documents released earlier this week show how the Ford PCs, after secretive communications with developers, bulldozed municipal designs for more dense, complete communities, in favour of sprawl.
“Some expansion of already developing areas with services easily extended were acceptable to staff and Council,” Parrish said. “The 607.9 acres will be rolled back. I believe that will save the Region and eventually the separated Town of Caledon, servicing costs,” she added. She did not directly address the more than 10,000 acres, beyond that, now slated for development under the decision she made along with all but one of her regional colleagues.
In a subsequent statement to The Pointer, Parrish defended the decision, made when considerable pressure was being put on the Region, adding that the Peel boundary expansions “were carefully selected” by the Region’s planning staff, noting the expansion was focused primarily in parts of Caledon that could be serviced to meet the housing targets set by the province for 2051.
“Had the committee not accepted the staff recommended expansions, the province would have done it with a broad brush and no guidance as to easily serviced areas already adjacent to developed communities and away from areas that would have had severe impacts on environmentally sensitive areas,” Parrish explained. “And as we saw with other municipalities, had the committee, staff and council not made our own carefully thought out decisions, the province would have done it for us based on their own criteria.”
Parrish did not address the admission of the PC government that its pressure involved questionable interference, or if she will take any action to reverse Peel’s boundary expansion, now that Calandra has committed to allowing municipalities to do so, without any more undue influence by his government.
The Pointer also reached out to Caledon Mayor Groves earlier in the week. She said the Town is currently reviewing its official plan, and that “staff will work with the province in the best interests of the Town with this new direction. We are committed to our Strategic Plan that includes community vitality and enhanced transit for our residents in Caledon.”
It currently remains unclear whether any councillors will bring forward a motion to the Region to reverse last year’s controversial boundary expansion decision and request that the 11,000 acres be removed from the existing urban boundary, or have the slated expansion reduced.
In an email to The Pointer, Mississauga Councillor Alvin Tedjo echoed Crombie, saying he will not be bringing anything forward as the expansion is predominantly in Caledon and with the Region’s dissolution coming up, it’s not “something I need to jump into.” Mississauga Councillor Joe Horneck said since he hasn’t had official confirmation on the details of the change, he is “in a wait and see” mode.
This is the second time the government has reversed a major policy decision in the last month.
The latest flip-flop follows the startling decision by the PC government to completely reverse the Greenbelt land swap following public backlash and damning reports from Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner exposed the disturbing misconduct and mismanagement that led to removing lands that stood to create almost $8.3 billion of value for preferred developers, some of whom were directly involved in the secretive plan.
Just less than three weeks ago Calandra said he wanted to put the Greenbelt scandal behind the government. In the same breath he announced new legislation to return 15 parcels of land back to the protected greenspace after they were removed through a secretive process that violated provincial rules — a move advocacy group Environmental Defence called a “modest first step.” The announcement also came after the RCMP announced would be “investigating irregularities” surrounding the land swap scandal.
"We want to make progress on building 1.5 million homes but ultimately this was not how the people of the province of Ontario wanted us to do that," Calandra previously said. "We are listening. We are ensuring that going forward any process with respect to the Greenbelt is done in the most public and open fashion."
Opposition parties have raised concerns that the forced municipal boundary expansions in the Regions of Waterloo and Halton, and the City of Hamilton, which were overridden by the Ford government after deciding to freeze their urban boundaries, benefitted developers connected to the PC’s through donations.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the announcement last week the “government’s latest flip-flop in their spiraling corruption scandal.”
In October, NDP leader Marit Stiles shared a leaked memo that revealed the provincial government knew its forced changes to boundary expansions were highly controversial. The memo listed potential issues with the expansions in Waterloo, Wellington County, Guelph, Barrie, Belleville and Peterborough. The NDP has since requested the auditor general investigate these expansions and whether preferential treatment was given to some of the same developers identified in the Greenbelt scandal, and possibly others.
“It explains that the changes to many of these urban boundaries were not assessed by municipal staff,” Stiles previously said, adding the document is proof the PCs were making a “conscious attempt to force sprawl on communities.”
Similar to the Greenbelt scandal, the series of FOI documents released by Environmental Defence and Ecojustice on Monday revealed PC government staff, under Ford’s reign, had a direct hand in forcing changes to municipal urban boundary expansions that favoured certain landowners and developers. The documents also appear to show the government was responsible for designating lands for development despite being rejected by municipal and provincial planning experts. The Pointer is currently reviewing the cache of documents released and more coverage will be forthcoming.
Last week, Stiles called the PC government out again, stating the boundary expansion reversal was the “government’s latest flip-flop in their spiraling corruption scandal,” amid an unprecedented housing crisis.
“Minister Calandra’s latest flip-flop makes it abundantly clear; we have only scratched the surface of the damage this government has done,” she said. “There is a deeply concerning culture of corruption and preferential treatment embedded in how this government makes public policy, and Ontarians deserve more answers.”
While the opposition criticizes the government’s latest moves, in a statement, Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman welcomed the news that the PC government intends to reverse its forced expansion of the urban boundaries in municipalities across the province.
“The decision to change the official plans of municipalities and force the expansion of urban boundaries across the province would have caused irreversible damage by allowing inefficient, costly, car-dependent sprawl in sensitive areas. We are pleased that the Ontario government has announced that it intends to reverse these decisions,” Bowman said, calling it a “victory for good planning in Ontario.”
“There was never a realistic possibility that un-serviced development approvals, on the fringes of urban areas, could provide fast, affordable housing,” she added. “The reversal suggests that the decisions were biased by interference from the Minister’s office and were not based on independent advice about how to create housing.”
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