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Ford government does U-turn on municipal boundary changes to maintain 'public trust'

The housing minister says his decision was made because of ‘too much involvement’ from staff working for his predecessor
Paul Calandra, Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing takes questions from journalists after tabling a bill to return lands removed from the Greenbelt, at the Queen's Park Legislature, in Toronto, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Premier Doug Ford’s government is promising to reverse changes it made to a dozen local official plans, marking the second major walkback of housing development-related policy in just over a month.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced the intended reversal a week after introducing a bill to undo the Greenbelt removals that Ford apologized for on Sept. 21.

The Ford government will be reversing urban boundary expansions and other changes to the official plans that it imposed on Barrie, Belleville, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa, Peterborough, Halton, Niagara, Peel, Waterloo, York and Wellington County, Calandra said on Monday morning.

Municipalities’ official plan changes will be undone with legislation, Calandra said.

Calandra did not introduce the bill on Monday, but said he will “as soon as I am able." He also said municipalities will be invited to “submit additional changes” to their official plans over the next 45 days. 

“The process (behind the official plan approvals) is 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,” Calandra told reporters at Queen’s Park in explaining why the government is reversing course.

Calandra said he’s revisited certain decisions made under former municipal affairs and housing minister Steve Clark, who resigned from Ford’s cabinet on Sept. 4 amid the Greenbelt scandal, to ensure they “were done in a manner that maintains and reinforces public trust.”

“When reviewing how decisions were made regarding official plans, it was clear that they failed to meet this test,” Calandra said.

The legislation Calandra promised on Monday would “wind back provincial changes to official plans and official plan amendments, except in circumstances where construction has started, or where doing so would contravene existing provincial legislation and regulation.”

It’ll also include provisions to ensure the provincial government can’t be sued by landowners over the changes, the minister promised. His Greenbelt restoration bill would ensure the same for landowners affected by it.

Calandra also said the provincial government “will work with” impacted municipalities to ensure “associated costs” from its latest reversal are paid for. 

A municipality’s official plan guides its long-term development, laying out where new housing, industrial spaces and infrastructure are expected to be built.

Municipalities' official plans typically take more than a year to be fully developed and reviewed and tend to require approval by Ontario’s municipal affairs and housing minister.

In 2022, various municipalities were required to update their official plans. 

Changes in Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, which Clark introduced and oversaw the passage of as minister, expanded the minister’s power to allow them to amend an official plan if it’s likely to adversely affect provincial interests and prohibited appeals of certain official plan policies.

In his Aug. 30 Greenbelt report, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake noted that Clark made more than 75 modifications apiece to official plans submitted by York and Hamilton — a pair of the 12 that Calandra promised to undo on Monday.

Wake’s report also notes that Ryan Amato, chief of staff to Clark from summer 2022 to August 2023, “had oversight of the official plan approval project,” which overlapped with when he was leading the process of selecting land to remove from the Greenbelt.

Amato identified several properties for removal from the Greenbelt after they were first identified in the ministry’s official plan-focused work, including at the request of developers who owned the lands, Wake’s report says. 

Amato resigned from his job in the housing minister’s office amid the Greenbelt scandal on Aug. 22, about a week before Wake's scathing report was released.

The Ford government had expanded urban boundaries for Hamilton, Ottawa, Waterloo, Belleville, Peterborough and Wellington County in official plan changes that it’s now promising to undo.

The expansions were controversial for a number of reasons, including for encouraging expensive, sprawling development over densification, and threatening sensitive agricultural and ecological lands, as well as being done over the heads of affected municipalities. Some also appear to have come at the request of developers.

Some municipal leaders were in favour of Calandra’s decision on Monday, while others said it created more administrative headaches and unnecessary work for municipal staff and local developers. Many were frustrated by the continued lack of consultation on major announcements. 

“I was very disappointed, pretty much flabbergasted, that the province wouldn't have the courtesy to even reach out to me as the mayor or to my council, or to our city staff and the planning department to give them a heads-up that this was even coming,” Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie said. “So that doesn't bode well for relationships.” 

Guelph submitted its official plan last July but had to wait months for the province to approve it with changes. Once those changes were made, the city and potential developers had to ensure all plans were in line with what the province wanted. 

“That’s all for naught now. It’s now a complete waste of time,” Guthrie said, adding that the time could’ve been better spent approving and building new housing. 

Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward was more charitable, taking the announcement as “a good sign the minister will work with and consult municipalities in making decisions in the future.”

Staff will review the legislation to see how it’ll affect the city’s ability to meet its provincial housing targets, said Meed Ward, who is also the chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors caucus.

Association of Municipalities of Ontario President Colin Best, a councillor in Milton, said he's happy about the U-turn.

"The provincial government moved unilaterally in directions that it clearly regrets. We are pleased that it is changing course to work collaboratively with municipalities on housing," he said in a statement.

Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley commended Calandra’s decision. 

“It is encouraging to see the minister’s commitment to upholding transparent public processes, while also continuing to strengthen partnerships between Ontario’s municipalities and the provincial government,” Bradley said. 

Bradley added that he's “confident” Niagara will meet its housing targets with its original official plan.

Belleville city councillor Paul Carr said he was “surprised but nonetheless pleased to see that this decision was undertaken by the government.” 

The province expanded Belleville’s urban boundary but Monday's announcement means it’ll revert. Belleville has more than enough existing land to meet its housing targets, Carr said. 

“This is a big victory for our city and for the protection of Hamilton farmland. The people of Hamilton fought hard against the changes to our urban boundary, and so I am happy that the provincial government listened to our council and our residents and decided to reverse course,” Hamilton Mayor Andrew Horwath said in a statement to The Trillium

“I have always been clear with our provincial partners that Hamilton can meet our housing commitments without any changes to our boundaries and without opening up the Greenbelt to development.”

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said he supports the decision, too. 

Waterloo Regional Chair Karen Redman didn't say whether she supported the decision, only that she looks forward to responding to the province's move.

York Regional chief planner Paul Freeman said he's still reviewing the province's changes and will "review future implications" once he gets more clarity on Monday's announcement.

“Our goal is to work closer with Ontario municipalities to ensure to meet our goal of building 1.5 million homes across the province of Ontario (by 2031),” Calandra said.

Dave Wilkes, CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development (BILD) Association, said his organization was disappointed by Calandra’s reversal.

“We really think it will setback the ability to bring future housing and employment spaces to the GTA — and of course the rest of the province — significantly and put at risk the province’s goal … to achieve a building of 1.5 million homes by 2031,” Wilkes said.

BILD, which advocates for developers, renovators and others in the building sector in the Greater Toronto Area, wasn’t consulted about Calandra’s reversal either, its CEO said.

The municipal affairs and housing minister also said a review of past minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) issued by the government is “almost complete.”

Asked if MZO reversals could be coming next, Calandra said that “by and large, the vast majority of them, frankly, I’m not concerned with,” considering many were requested by him while he was long-term care minister, or contribute to building transit-oriented communities or social housing.

“Where I want to look at, full disclosure, is those that have been given an MZO but work has not started in any way,” Calandra said.

Both the Liberals and NDP tried to make political hay out of the urban boundary expansions in the past few weeks. 

MPPs from both parties separately asked Ontario’s auditor general to investigate some of the urban boundary modifications, which the watchdog office has said it’ll consider. Some municipalities backed those requests. 

Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general until early September, initiated an investigation into the government’s use of MZOs as one of her last acts in the office.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also launched an investigation into the Greenbelt changes. No one working in the government has so far been contacted as part of the RCMP’s ongoing investigation, Calandra said on Monday.

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