Ontario’s Greenbelt saved, now Ford should fix other bad ideas | David Israelson

By David Israelson

Law360 Canada (September 25, 2023, 9:58 AM EDT) --
David Israelson
David Israelson
Let’s be charitable now that Premier Doug Ford has reversed himself completely and once again promises never to wreck Ontario’s Greenbelt.

It’s never easy to admit you’re wrong; it must have been especially difficult for Ford to climb down after refusing many times over many months to do so, amid mounting public anger and the lingering whiff of corruption, including an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that hasn’t finished yet.

It’s time to depersonalize. Yet, Ontario is still beset by a huge set of problems caused by the Ford government’s policies. Its planning, housing, environmental and conservation policies are terrible and need a complete overhaul too.

Bad decisions, bad policies, bad bills

It’s hard to know where to start. Last fall, around the same time as the province announced its scheme to wreck the Greenbelt, it passed Bill 23, which takes away much of the oversight powers municipalities had over how their communities should be developed and serviced. Bill 23 also eliminated development charges — the fees developers pay to contribute to infrastructure and services such as parks and schools.

It’s still unclear where that money will come from now. Taxpayers?

The province followed Bill 23 with changes to the Provincial Planning Statement, a document that is supposed to encourage municipalities to put development in or near existing communities, so the intensified areas can be walkable, have access to transit and so sprawl can be avoided. Not anymore. The Ford government’s changes allow cities and towns to expand their boundaries into fields and forests without having to justify why.

Bad roads too

The Ford government also says it’s still hell-bent on building two mega-roads, the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413, that would cut through farms, woods and wetlands — including parts of the Greenbelt — at a cost of more than $6 billion.

Building these roads will benefit a handful of well-connected developers, who would profit heavily from land they scooped nearby.

The roads also would be threats to endangered species, and potential road salt and pollution will drip into 85 waterways they would cross. The activist group Environmental Defence estimates that traffic from 413 would add an additional 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas-causing carbon emissions by 2050.

According to the government’s own research, drivers on the 59-kilometre Highway 413 would save about 60 seconds travel time compared with existing roads and highways. Yes, that works out to $100,000,000 per second saved.

Disinfecting ministerial zoning orders

Another place to clean up is to clean up with the province’s unrelenting use of Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs). These allow the housing and infrastructure minister to approve development projects, while ignoring local zoning bylaws and not bothering with public consultation.

Previous Ontario governments issued only a handful of MZOs; since taking power in 2018, the Ford government has issued more than 100.

MZOs need a second look. There needs to be a way to check this imbalance of power, so it’s not used by the province to bully local communities.

We also need to know how MZOs get decided. In his scathing report on the Greenbelt mess, Ontario integrity commissioner J. David Wake referred to a mysterious “Mr. X,” who turns out to be a not-so-mysterious ex-mayor of Clarington, Ont., John Mutton.

Mutton and his staff met with now-disgraced former housing minister Steve Clark and Clark’s staffers to discuss potential MZOs that would benefit developers Mutton worked for. “We are proud to be the leading firm in turning out [making happen] Ministers Zoning Orders,” Mutton posted on LinkedIn in June 2022. Who else influences our cabinet ministers?

Ontario Place

And who wants to replace public space and amenities at Ontario Place with a giant foreign-owned spa that will get a 95-year secret lease, charge people about $40 each to visit, require chopping down trees and will be served by a huge parking lot that will cost taxpayers as much as $600 million? Who wants to rip down the half-century-old Ontario Science Centre and move bits of it to Ontario Place? The Ontario government, that’s who.

The people want something better. A growing chorus of critics don’t like the government’s plan, its secrecy and its plot to turn more of Ontario Place over to private hands. Why not listen?

Stop the secrecy

We could go on — it’s awful how the government weakened local conservation authorities, for example. But perhaps the biggest problem is the cone of silence that surrounds so much of this government’s decision-making.

The Ford government appears to be making unreasonable use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) requiring people to sign these when they leave the government or if they approach it to negotiate better policies. These seem to go beyond normal business practice; more like gag orders.

The Ford government has already discovered that secrecy doesn’t necessarily help. Making better decisions does. Time for the government to try.  
David Israelson is a writer and non-practising lawyer who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.  

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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