Province greenlights controversial Pickering development on protected wetland using special order

A special order has been issued by the province to fast-track a project that environmental groups say will destroy irreplaceable wetlands.

Environmental groups decry use of minister's zoning orders to fast-track development

A view of the section of Pickering wetland that could be developed. (Google Maps)

A plan to build on a protected wetland in Pickering, Ont. is drawing criticism from environmental groups and politicians — and shining a light on the evolving use of special provincial orders that allow developments to be fast-tracked. 

The 57-acre wetland, located just south of Highway 401 near Pickering's border with Ajax, is part of the lower Duffin's Creek wetland complex, which was deemed "provincially significant" back in 2005 — a designation that is supposed to protect it from development or alteration. 

But on Friday, the Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs announced that a minister's zoning order, or MZO, was being issued for the site, allowing a distribution centre and production facility to be built there. 

MZOs allow the minister to overrule local planning and rezone any land in Ontario, as long as it's outside of the Greenbelt. 

Even before Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark signed off on the order, which came at the behest of the City of Pickering, stakeholders were rushing to make their concerns known. 

Last week, the board of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) — responsible for regulating the area — unanimously passed a motion saying that they don't support any move to develop wetlands, particularly one that's deemed provincially significant.

"This is not a small wetland," said TRCA vice-chair Jack Heath during the board's discussion on the issue last Friday.

"It looks to me like the environment's for sale." 

Other critics of the plan include the city council for neighbouring Ajax, which sent a letter to the minister urging him not to sign toff. 

Groups like Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature are also registering their concern, as is the Green Party of Ontario, whose leader Mike Schreiner called it a "reckless request to pave over the natural areas that prevent flooding" at Queen's Park on Thursday. 

Possibility of 'compensation' if wetland destroyed

Despite the MZO being issued, the future of the Pickering site, at this point, remains unclear. 

Though they've made their opposition known, the TRCA has also entered into an agreement with the property owner and with Pickering to discuss "ecosystem compensation" if the land is developed. 

That means, according to a TRCA staff report, compensation "could be provided wholly, or in part through cash-in-lieu" to pay for a "replication" of the ecosystems that would be lost in the construction.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, have blasted this arrangement as well, describing it as a "pay-to-slay." 

There is another potential roadblock for the project. 

To move forward, the property owners need a development permit to be greenlit by the TRCA board. 

Though Laurie Nelson, director of policy planning at the TRCA, says "there is the potential" for withholding the permit to prevent the project from going forward, she also says there is an appeal process if the permit is refused.

MZO's now being issued 'routinely' 

General criticism of how the Ford government is using MZOs has also been mounting in recent months. 

"Minister's zoning orders are kind of the nuclear option for planning in Ontario," said Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray.

Over the 15 years before the Doug Ford government was elected, he says, the orders were used sparingly and in emergencies. For example, when a mall collapsed in Elliot Lake, Ont. in 2012, temporarily leaving the community without a supermarket, an MZO was issued to expedite construction.

But now, MZOs are more common, and after the government's COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act was passed in July "enhancing" the minister's ability to issue the orders, they are also more powerful.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, says 'if you don't have [wetlands] … you end up paying billions of dollars to try and recreate their function.' (Environmental Defence)

"What's happened with this government is that they're just doing them routinely at the request of developers and municipalities," said Gray. 

Speaking to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario Conference in late August, the municipal affairs minister touted the MZOs as a tool to "cut red tape to support Ontario's recovery" during the pandemic. 

"I'm proud that we've been able to help municipal councils give their priority projects a jumpstart," Clark said. 

But concerns about the application of those "jumpstarts" are piling up — including Toronto's mayor and several other councillors, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture

In its response to questions about the current use of MZOs, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing wrote that "every single Minister's Zoning Order issued by the minister on non-provincially owned land has been at the request of the local municipality. 

"MZOs are a tool that our government uses to get critical local projects moving faster."

With files from Muriel Draaisma