The Ford government, and in particular Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, has come under scrutiny of late for issuing municipal zoning orders (MZOs) intended to catalyze the construction of much-needed housing.
However, the criticism is unwarranted because MZOs have only been used on projects stuck in limbo due to duplicative red tape. In fact, the MZO is an important tool that helps government move projects along.
Many of these MZOs are not contentious, either. Toronto’s city council, for example, has voted twice in the past year to secure MZOs—one to speed up the construction of two modular home developments for the homeless, and the other for outdoor dining patios at restaurants across the city.
We desperately need more housing units to be built. This will also aid our economic recovery by creating more jobs, but we’re currently in a crisis situation and projects shouldn’t sit on the shelf because of a bureaucratic logjam.
Research has shown that the approvals process takes far too long in Ontario. Rezoning delays can take more than three years and residential site plan approvals can take another two years, and that drives up the cost of housing.
We know that the average rezoning duration for tall buildings in Toronto rose to nearly three and a half years in 2016 from about nine months in 2006. A report commissioned by the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON), and conducted by the University of Toronto, evaluated 172 tall-building projects built between 2006 and 2016 and found that 42% of development applications were referred to the Ontario
Municipal Board because the city had failed to announce decisions.
Toronto isn’t the only city experiencing such problems. A major housing project in Caledon was blocked by the Region of Peel for a year, with no reason given. Although staff had recommended the Official Plan be amended to allow the project’s procession, in addition to receiving approval from Caledon’s council, it wasn’t permitted. Thankfully, the province stepped in and issued an MZO to overrule the Region of Peel and allow the rezoning.
MZOs are embedded in Ontario’s Planning Act and give government the final and deciding word on how a piece of land will be used in the province. In the past, they have been used to advance initiatives of provincial significance. For example, an MZO was issued to permit the opening of a new grocery store in Elliott Lake after the roof of the town’s only store caved in. Previous governments have used MZOs for manufacturing plants in Woodstock, a distribution centre in Bolton, and on several occasions to allow slot machines at casinos.
The provincial government has drawn criticism for issuing more than 30 orders in just over a year, however, every application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis and turned down if necessary.
Dorsay Developments, as another example, wanted to build a new town north of Ajax and Pickering in an area that bordered the Greenbelt. There were concerns about the impact development could have on downstream water quality after the Toronto Region Conservation Authority conducted a study that raised concerns. The developer sought an MZO, but Durham Region voted to oppose it, and the minister agreed with the decision.
The minister is often asked for MZOs because development approvals take too long, and in many cases, the requests come from municipalities.
MZOs are necessary until municipalities find a way to speed up approvals. There simply isn’t enough housing being built in Ontario, and immigration will only compound the need. The province must build 75,000 new homes a year to keep up with expected population growth over the next 24 years and, on average, it’s short by about 12,000 units annually. The delays certainly don’t help.
A slow and inefficient approvals process will hurt our economic recovery. MZOs are, therefore, still a necessary option.
Richard Lyall, president of RESCON, has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at [email protected].