The province has approved a massive project in Pickering that will destroy a 22-hectare provincially significant wetland, a move that has alarmed environmental groups — and the mayor of a neighbouring town who says the “project is being rammed through.”
The Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing issued a ministerial zoning order late Friday afternoon to fast-track a development dubbed Project Lonestar, which includes a warehouse distribution centre and a film studio at Squires Beach Road and Bayly Street in Pickering just south of the 401.
Minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs, are a planning tool that gives the minister — currently Steve Clark — the power to override local planning processes and guidelines, forgo public consultations, and designate land use without the possibility of appeals. In the case of Lonestar, it will also eliminate the need for any environmental assessments.
MZOs were used only a handful of times by the the previous government, but nearly 30 have been issued under Doug Ford’s government since the fall of 2018 — including last week for three properties in Toronto’s West Don Lands. The government says it’s a necessary tool to cut red tape for needed infrastructure like long-term-care facilities and affordable housing.
The province has repeatedly said it would not issue MZOs on the protected Greenbelt lands, but that doesn’t appear to apply to other provincially significant environmentally protected land. An MZO issued in Vaughan in April for a distribution facility, for example, also came at the expense of three provincially significant wetlands.
“The rules have always been clear: this is a wetland, it’s provincially significant, you can’t build on it,” said Tim Gray, an executive director of Environmental Defence. “What they are doing is not about removing red tape, it’s about removing prohibitions developers don’t like.”
Pickering city council asked the province for the MZO in May this year, after the lawyer for the developer, Ira Kagan, suggested an MZO would kick-start the city’s economic recovery.
According to the city’s staff report, “Kagan stated that in the past, these requests to the Minister were infrequent, but that currently there are many MZO requests being made,” and “he advised that with an MZO, there were be no need (sic) for public hearings, and no ability for appeals, which would allow a more timely start to the project.”
Pickering says the massive Durham Live development project already includes a casino and hotel, and also the Project Lonestar proposal, which is of “critical importance” to the city, region and province.
“Essentially, the MZO cuts through a lot of red tape and unlocks the full potential of the site a few years early,” said Mark Guinto, the city’s spokesperson.
“Further, Lonestar required certain assurances and guarantees if it were to consider locating to Pickering,” he added. “As such, we needed to expedite these timelines or risk losing a new $ 100-million investment, up to $ 20 million in annual commercial tax revenues, and 2,000 new jobs.”
Guinto added that the development required 28 hectares of land, and a preference to be near the highway.
But the land — equivalent to 40 football fields — includes the Lower Duffin’s Creek Wetland Complex with significant wetland, significant woodland and wildlife habitat, according to a report from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).
“Other potential features which are likely to occur but have yet to be confirmed include endangered species habitat,” according to the report. “The landowner’s planning consultant has stated that Project Lonestar would result in the removal of the wetland and upland habitat in their entirety.”
Minister of Natural Resources and Forests John Yakabuski also sent a letter to TRCA executive director John MacKenzie to ask the agency to come up with a compensation agreement with the developer for the loss of the wetland, which could include money or replicating the wetland elsewhere.
Yakabuski also suggested that the ministry would consider reclassifying the wetland based on a report from the developer’s ecologist.
“Consideration of the removal of such a large wetland is unprecedented under the TRCA’s Living City Policies and regulatory authority,” the TRCA report said, adding that the board of directors “do not support development within wetlands, particularly, provincially significant wetlands.”
Sriram Raman, a spokesperson for the TRCA, said in an email that in a normal planning process, the conservation authority would provide comments to a municipality about the kind of protection required for the project. “TRCA policies and most municipal policies prohibit development in a (provincially significant wetland) and impose buffer / setback requirements.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources appointed a Wetland Strategy Advisory Committee in 2018, with representation from several industry groups, including developers, who recommended that provincially significant wetlands remain strictly off limits to development.
Adam Wilson, the director of communications for Steven Clark, said the TRCA and the developer have “signed an agreement that would lead to the creation of ecological benefits that meet or exceed any loss to the natural system, following an assessment.”
Wilson also said that even if an MZO is issued, Pickering would be able to set out conditions for development approval — including environmental studies.
But Shaun Collier, the mayor of Ajax, which neighbours Pickering and the development, said he’s not sure any conditions will be requested once the approvals are already in place.
“When you have an MZO, it bypasses most of the requirements you would have in a regular proposal,” he said, adding there are currently no building plans or concepts for the Lonestar project.
Collier, who said he was at the negotiating table with Pickering, Durham Region and the developer until last week, said Ajax opposed the MZO request, concerned about the limited road infrastructure and capacity in the area.
He said he tried to put forward conditions to ensure that the developer would pay for the necessary infrastructure to support such a large project, and that taxpayers wouldn’t eventually be on the hook for it.
“That protection is not in the agreement,” he said.
Yet, he said he was troubled with what he saw. “The province doesn’t tend to move very quickly.” In this case, the TRCA report came out Friday, and a compensation agreement was signed by all parties on Wednesday.
“You can see how this is being rammed through by the province,” he said.
“I have never seen a development go like this — no consideration, just pushed right through for the sake of creating some warehousing jobs,” said Collier. “This is being done so wrongly, it just can’t be ignored.”
Pickering’s Guinto said Ajax’s “numerous concerns were being addressed,” including a requirement for traffic studies and completed intersections.
But he added, “at the 11th hour, Ajax added a number of new clauses to the agreement, which would have resulted in further delays and effectively killed Pickering’s chances of securing the Lonestar investment,” said Guinto. “It became apparent that Ajax was just trying to frustrate the process.”
Collier refuted that claim, saying that he was “set up” to be pushed out of the negotiations.
He said he wished he had simply opposed the MZO from the start instead of negotiating.
“We are no further ahead — we wasted all this staff time, none of what we negotiated ended up the agreement, it appears the minister is still going to issue an MZO, and our relationship is in the toilet.”
In a release issued on Friday about the MZO, Durham Live developer Steve Apostolopoulos, managing partner for Triple Group of Companies, thanked the province for the MZO, but failed to mention anything about the wetland.
“This MZO lays the foundation for thousands of more jobs,” said Apostolopoulos.
Gray with Environmental Defence said he thinks the public would be surprised at how senior government officials are using MZOs.
“I don’t think the public has caught up the speed at which the government is going, and how coordinated it all is,” said Gray.
“To have the province, who is traditionally not involved in this stuff, reach in, micromanage and cut the public out of the equation to get these things approved — it’s a pretty huge departure from the way we have set up our municipal governments.”