18 MZOs given to developers who were guests at Premier Ford's family wedding: NDP

TORONTO — Ontario has given out 18 Minister's Zoning Orders for developer projects to guests who attended a wedding of Premier Doug Ford's daughter last summer, the New Democrats said Monday.

The land-planning tool can be used to fast-track development in a given area and the Progressive Conservative government has been criticized in the past for how often it uses the mechanism also known as an MZO.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said being friends with Ford has its benefits.

"We've uncovered that Mr. Ford's Conservatives have issued as many MZOs to benefit attendees of a single Ford family wedding reception as the previous Liberal government handed out in 15 years," Stiles said.

Paul Calandra, who took over as housing minister in early September, said Monday that he is conducting a review of MZOs, but that the province will continue to use them to build housing faster.

"The vast majority of the ministerial zoning orders, specifically, were requested by municipalities," Calandra said.

"But where I want to go back and look are those that have not made any progress, that aren't meeting the goals of building housing."

The MZO review is among several changes Calandra has initiated since taking over for Steve Clark, who resigned after the integrity commissioner found he violated ethics rules by putting his head in the sand while his chief of staff selected which lands would be removed from the Greenbelt. Those lands went to certain developers who asked chief of staff Ryan Amatoto have them removed from the protected area.

The auditor general and the integrity commissioner found in separate reports that the process to remove lands from the Greenbelt was rushed, and favoured certain developers over others.

Ford has since reversed course on the Greenbelt, but the RCMP has launched an investigation into the matter.

Last week, Calandra announced the government was also reversing course on expanding urban boundaries for municipalities such as Barrie, Belleville, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa and Peterborough.

Advocacy group Environmental Defence released thousands of pages of emails and documents Monday about the province's decision to expand several cities' and regions' official plans last year. They claim the documents and communications show political staff directed changes that would benefit certain developers.

On the zoning orders highlighted by the NDP on Monday, nine of those 18 MZOs were given out to Flato Developments, which is owned by longtime Ford friend Shakir Rehmatullah, the New Democrats said.

Former minister Kaleed Rasheed resigned along with Ford's former housing policy director, Jay Trusdell, after revelations they went to Las Vegas with Rehmatullah and the premier's former principal secretary, Amin Massoudi.

Rehmatullah also benefited from the Ford government's move to take out land last year from the Greenbelt.

The allegations are false and defamatory, Rehmatullah's lawyer said.

"There is nothing unusual or improper about this state of affairs," said Michael Fenrick in an email.

"Flato has received MZOs because it has a consistent track record of progressing projects and developing much-needed housing (including purpose-built rental and affordable housing) across the province."

He said Flato works with local municipal councils to get their approval to projects that are subject to a minister's zoning order.

"MZOs should not be used to drive up land values," Fenrick said. "They should be used for projects that can deliver the homes Ontarians need in the midst of a housing crisis in the province."

The 18 zoning orders pointed out by the NDP largely enable development on farmland in the Toronto area.

Stiles said the murkiness behind issuing zoning orders is a problem that needs to be fixed, and accused the Ford government of malfeasance.

"It really seems like being a friend of the Ford family does have its perks," Stiles said. "This is an outrageous way for a government to operate."

Calandra said he is not concerned about most of the zoning orders handed out because he gave out the majority of them for long-term care homes when he was in charge of that portfolio. But he said he is committed to changing the process for using MZOs.

"I think there's a better process of doing it and making it more open so people can see exactly why the request is being made and how it's being made," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023.

Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press