Ontario is using regular Minister’s Zoning Orders to fast-track development applications

• The Ontario government is using regular Minister’s Zoning Orders (MLOs) to fast-track development applications and “slash through the rules” as soon as those rules conflict with the laws governing these decisions, according to the auditor general.

“Government sometimes uses a tool called a Minister’s Zoning Order (MLO) to speed up (in the government’s view) the procedures for approving applications,” said Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.

“MLOs have to be approved by cabinet ministers. But they don’t have to include all the required steps, like public notification and open houses. You can also dispense with the public hearings.

“The government appoints officials to approve the development applications. We found that their recommendations sometimes do not seem to follow the rules.

“They may approve an application without examining whether the developer does or does not fully comply with the provincial planning laws and regulations. This creates an imbalance because the builders get access to an expedited system for decision making, but they do not pay the price when they don’t comply with the laws or regulations,” the auditor concluded.

Last year, as of December 31, there were some 497 MLOs that approved between 24,187 and 26,630 development applications. Nearly a third of these were included in just a few weeks when funding was available.

“Ontario’s land-use laws and regulations are among the toughest in the world, and they were developed with the help of experts. They are developed in response to threats of rampant urban sprawl and car dependence. But to get planning to move more quickly, the government has to get rid of archaic, cumbersome regulations so that planning officials can use the tools they have at their disposal.

“One of those tools is the Minister’s Zoning Order. Officials cannot review or override them, but the government cannot kill them. (Our analysis) shows that there is a political motivation to use them and do so in a way that speeds approvals.

“It should take at least a year before a proposed development application can be approved and another year for it to get the full review and examination required. Instead, the government issued 51 MLOs in the financial year 2014-15. It issued another 41 in 2015-16 and 44 in 2016-17.”

The Auditor General also revealed that government officials sometimes do not have proper qualifications and experience to analyze development applications. The sector is riddled with data gaps, she noted.

“It is not clear how these officials interpret the legislation they are regulating. Each planning region has up to 55 people who are involved in development applications. But only some numbers are publicly disclosed – and those numbers are very limited,” the auditor concluded.

“According to Ontario’s environment ministry, about 1,800 of the 55 people involved are affiliated with a land-use organization. But officials cannot fully account for the connections. There is a large overlap between developers and the land-use organizations. What connections are not known is whether the developer or land-use organization are related to each other or from the same group.

“We contacted the ministries of energy, transportation, and environment and climate change to learn whether staff could confirm who was involved in approving these MLOs. The ministry of environment said that such information was not available, and explained that this is because decisions about such changes are made by the minister.

“Fees for review and evaluation for MLA’s Zoning Orders were collected as a matter of course, but this department cannot say how much revenue the process generates or whether any of the MLOs raised any revenue. We also cannot determine whether some MLOs are more quickly approved than others, or whether the recommendations given to cabinet members are applied consistently.”

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