Behind the curtain of MZOs: Emails show internal concerns raised about the process


Toward the end of November 2021, a potential problem came across the desk of Region of Peel Chief Administrative Officer Janice Baker.It was a request from Burlington-based Argo Development Corp., asking the City of Brampton to table a motion asking for a Minister’s Zoning Order — or MZO — to build a subdivision on the western outskirts of the city.If granted, the order would allow the developer to bypass the lengthy local planning process.Argo offered councillors a carrot in its request, promising to build a much-needed new police station if it was allowed to skip the traditional planning process.It was no small ask.Argo planned to build 69 single-family homes, 691 townhouses, two medium-density blocks and two towers, its initial plan said. The site was a full subdivision, meaning roads, stormwater and a school facility were among the things that would spring up as the project moved along.“You may already be aware, but I thought it was important to share that Argo appears to be using the tentative deal on the location for the Police facility as justification for an MZO to bypass the normal planning process in Brampton,” Baker wrote in a Nov. 24, 2021, email to Nando Iannicca, the region’s chair. Argo plans to build 898 new units across 139 acres in Brampton, Ont. Communications obtained by Global News show municipal staff warned elected officials about concerns with the request. Those concerns ranged from potential embarrassment to threatening endangered species and losing out on vital affordable housing. The concerns, however, were never uttered in public.The City of Brampton quickly requested an MZO for Argo to skip the planning process, which was then granted by the Ford government in March 2022 — less than four months after the initial request was made.“What the MZO does is circumvent and speed up the usual approval process,” Zack Taylor, an associate professor at Western University, explained.“Once the municipal zoning applying to the project is changed by an MZO and the project is deemed approved, it proceeds as it would (have if) the municipality followed the normal process. At least in principle, this speeds things up, although critics argue that it circumvents all kinds of useful and necessary processes, like consultations with the public and Indigenous Peoples, environmental (groups).”The developer’s website now lists the Brampton project — named Mount Pleasant Heights — as “active” and promises to deliver 898 units across 139 acres of land.The communications between municipal staff, councillors and the developer, which were obtained through freedom of information requests, offer a unique insight into how an MZO actually works. 1:56 First Nation leaders disapprove of Kawartha Downs MZO Some 250-plus pages of emails, reports and letters shed some light on the complicated process that ultimately resulted in Argo being greenlit to supercharge the timeline of its development — and cut back on public input.Links to the PC Party and local councilElection finances appear to show executives associated with Argo, the developer that asked Brampton council to request the MZO, donated to both the governing PC Party and to key members of city council.Records maintained by Elections Ontario show the names of at least four people who hold senior roles within the Argo corporation appear to have made donations to the PC Party.Gord Buck (named as founder on the company’s website), Babette Buck (human resources), Amanda Buck (development coordinator) and Matt Buck (operations manager) all donated to Doug Ford’s election campaign in 2018 and regularly to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.The records, for example, show that someone named Gordon Buck donated over $10,000 to the PC Party, Stephen Lecce and Sylvia Jones between 2018 and 2023.“This MZO came at the request of Brampton City Council, who voted in favour of requesting this MZO on Nov. 24, 2021,” a spokesperson for Ontario’s housing minister told Global News. “This MZO will help accelerate the creation of much-needed housing, including up to 1,500 new homes.”The names Gord and Babette Buck also appear as contributors to the defeated Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Charles Sousa in 2018. A Matthew Buck made a contribution to the Ontario NDP, records also show. 10:01 Ontario Election: Liberal Charles Sousa thanks supporters after projected loss There are no rules against figures in the development industry donating to politicians, nor are politicians forbidden from accepting such donations. Political contributions appear under the full name of those who donate, and not the company they work for or own.“It is difficult in Ontario to assess how much campaign funding for municipal and provincial candidates comes from developers because corporations cannot donate to campaigns anymore, only individuals,” Taylor said.“What little we do know is that developers are significant contributors to municipal candidates’ campaigns in the ‘905’ municipalities … We also know from media investigations that large property developers routinely donate to provincial political parties (and not just the PCs).” More names associated with the developer appear on the 2018 election donor lists for several key members of Brampton City Council. Gord Buck and Matthew Gordon Buck are listed on Mayor Patrick Brown’s election filing, while Matt and Babette Buck donated to Coun. Michael Palleschi, the local councillor for the area where the MZO was requested.“I supported this because it expedited the police station we need in the western side of the city,” Brown told Global News in response to questions about donations to his campaign and affordable housing associated with the project.Coun. Palleschi said he had “never discussed this MZO request with either Matt or Babette Buck.”He also referenced a portion of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which says that an insignificant contribution “cannot reasonably be regarded as likely to influence the member.“I am thankful to all donors who contributed to my election campaign and must note that the donations highlighted by the donors named – combined – equate to 1.6 per cent of the total amount of contributions to my 2018 election campaign,” Coun. Palleschi told Global News. 2:38 Ontario PC Party apologizes for invoice scheme The names Fabio Mazzocco — the former president of Argo — and Brian Sutherland, vice-president of Argo in Peel and York, both appear on the donations list for Coun. Martin Medeiros, chair of the city’s planning and development committee when the MZO request came forward.Medeiros told Global News he was not made aware of the MZO request, brought forward by Coun. Palleschi, until it appeared at council.He said he appreciated donations from “individuals as allowed under legislation and not corporations,” adding Argo was a reputable developer across the Greater Toronto Area.“However, I have voted against their interests several times,” he said, referencing land use decisions at the Region of Peel as one example. “(I) would not be swayed by an individual campaign contribution.”Medeiros said he was not consulted about the MZO prior to its discussion at council and supported it on the basis it would deliver a police station and necessary future growth.The name Fabio Mazzocco also appears in Elections Ontario donations to Progressive Conservative figures as well as Charles Sousa. Someone named Brian Sutherland donated to PC figures and to the Ontario Liberal Party in Dufferin—Caledon.Global News emailed detailed questions to Argo’s general inbox and directly to all company email addresses disclosed through the freedom of information requests – no response was received. A voicemail also went unanswered.The Region of Peel in an ‘awkward’ positionWhen the request from an MZO was formally lodged with councillors, it blindsided Baker, the Region of Peel’s top bureaucrat.“Regional staff were surprised as we were not given any heads up this would be happening,” she wrote to regional chair Iannicca.In particular, Baker raised concerns about how Argo had positioned its MZO.In a letter sent to Brampton city councillors, the developer said its project was an important step toward creating a new division headquarters for the Peel Regional Police. Argo promised its project would deliver key public safety benefits — if it was able to skip the planning queue.“Through discussions with the Peel Regional Police and the Region of Peel, Argo TFP has been able to ascertain that the subject lands represent an appropriate area in which a new Divisional Headquarters could be located, and that it is ideally situated to meet the needs of the police,” the developer wrote.Coun. Palleschi, who moved the successful motion to endorse the MZO on Nov. 24, 2021, echoed the sentiment at a council meeting, saying the MZO was a “good news story.” 2:25 Increase in provincial MZOs has farm lobby group concerned In an email to Iannicca, Baker seemed to think that claim was a stretch. “I think it puts the Region in a very awkward position, given at no time did staff ask for or suggest that development approvals needed to be fast tracked in order to accommodate the needs of PRP,” Baker wrote.In a briefing document prepared by Brampton city staff for councillors, municipal planners raised the same concern.“The Peel Police Headquarters is an immediate need, however the building of this subdivision is not,” Brampton staff wrote. “Perhaps the Headquarters can be built and serviced independent of the rest of the development.”In response to questions from Global News, Brampton contradicted the previous position of some of its staff.“The Peel Police Headquarters (HQ) site could not likely be achieved on the ArgoTFP site without the entire site being approved … for its development purposes,” a spokesperson said, citing “various technical issues” that “could not be done in isolation.”MZOs, including the order eventually granted to Argo, have been a lightning-rod issue for the Ford government, particularly among environmental advocates.Under Ford, the controversial planning tool has taken an increased role in the planning process as developers, some of whom have donated to the Progressive Conservative Party, have been allowed to fast-track projects and side-step local oversight. 4:44 Ontario Greenbelt protections relaxed by Tories to allow for more housing A 2021 report from Ontario’s auditor general said the government issued 44 MZOs between March 2019 and March 2021, when under past administrations roughly one was issued per year. In 2017 and 2018, no MZOs were issued.MZOs were originally intended to be issued in special circumstances, but the Ford government has used them as a tool to overcome potential barriers and delays to development, the auditor general said.Brampton staff raise wide-ranging concernsThe Region of Peel’s CAO was not the only municipal employee concerned by the proposed MZO.Shortly after Argo approached the city to request support for an MZO, Allan Parsons, Brampton’s director of development services, sent an email — obtained by Global News through one of several freedom of information requests — to a number of councillors and the mayor.In it, he laid out the potential impacts of the request. The concerns — spread across two pages — ranged from climate change to job creation.“As has been shared previously, while staff are not generally supportive of the use of MZOs, we do understand that Council may choose to use this tool,” Parsons wrote.He attached a Microsoft Word document filled with potential issues.At its core, planning staff said the proposed development did not align with the city’s vision for the area, one of the few remaining undeveloped areas of Brampton.“The applicants’ land use composition does not appropriately address employment within the plan,” staff warned.A Brampton spokesperson claimed that the Peel police headquarters would address this.Municipal planners also informed councillors the developer’s plan would eliminate almost a hectare of woodlot and a headwater drainage feature connected to a redside dace habitat, the document showed.The redside dace is a fish that was added to Ontario’s endangered species list in 2009. According to the provincial government’s website, it is “facing imminent extinction or extirpation.” 1:56 Ontario’s new natural resources minister accused of endangering threatened species The area where Argo planned to build its subdivision had been planned as a “near net-zero community,” Brampton staff said in their briefing for councillors. The plan behind the proposed MZO did “not appropriately” address how low-carbon requirements would be met. The document was circulated to several council members before they voted on Argo’s request for an MZO at a public council meeting. It was not made public, and the issues raised were not discussed in any detail by elected officials in the public meeting.The City of Brampton issued a broad statement in response to specific questions about the redside dace and other environmental concerns cited by staff internally when the MZO was first proposed. “All major technical issues are resolved with the Plan of Subdivision and Draft Approval,” the city told Global News.Concerns about the proposed MZO were echoed outside of city hall.In an email on March 1, 2022, Brampton’s acting manager of development services, Cynthia Owusu-Gyimah, revealed local school officials were unconvinced by the proposal.“At heart of the matter is that need for (a) larger parcel of land for the school board to accommodate the expected student population and associated outdoor space,” she wrote.She said the developer’s latest offer was, according to Peel District School Board (PDSB), “still not sufficient.”In a Feb. 28 letter from PDSB to Argo, the school board’s manager of planning and enrollment said the six-acre site offered by the developer would not meet the “needs of this residential development.”In a statement sent to Global News, PDSB said it could not comment on the development as it had begun negotiations to secure land. “We look forward to continuing our work with the vendor of the site and the City of Brampton,” a spokesperson said.Brampton fails to ensure specific affordable housing commitment in MZODocuments reveal that councillors, staff and developers haggled in private over affordable housing for Argo’s project in Brampton, with the city apparently failing to secure any concrete commitments before the MZO request was granted by the province.Email exchanges suggest the province informed Brampton it could use the wording of the Minister’s Zoning Order to compel Argo to deliver affordable housing, but that the city chose not to.On March 3, 2022, city staff planned, and then cancelled, a meeting with Mayor Brown, and three councillors — Coun. Pat Fortini, Medeiros and Palleschi.It had originally been arranged to “share issues with political leadership regarding affordable housing matters” associated with the development plan.Parsons, Brampton’s director of development services who organized the meeting, wrote in his introductory note to explain the developer was unsure about delivering the level of affordable housing that council wanted.“Mark Jepp (ArgoTFP) has noted concerns with the extent of affordability required to date by Council, and was hoping to address Council on this matter in the near future,” Parsons wrote.That week, staff worked on solutions in the background with the developer and ended on something few seemed happy with: Argo agreed to sign a commitment to build affordable housing without specific targets or numbers.In a message sent on March 9, 2022, Parsons said, in relation to Argo’s “concerns” about affordable housing, that the developer had created a written commitment.“ArgoTFP has provided a Letter of Undertaking (see attached) to confirm that they are committed to satisfying Council regarding Housing Affordability,” he wrote.The approach is one Parsons described in another email to the city’s head of building barely an hour later, as “not bulletproof.” Another city staffer, Steven Ross — currently deputy city solicitor, according to Brampton’s staff directory — told his colleagues in an email that the letter was “not a great option but at least it is something.”The letter itself was sparse in details. It said the developer had made a “commitment to an affordable housing solution through the subsequent approval process.”“More specifically, the principles of the affordable housing solution will be presented to Planning Committee and Council as part of the recommendation report for the associated draft plan application later this year.” 2:20 Ontario’s affordable housing program focuses on processes, not increased density A Brampton spokesperson told Global News that a minimum of 76 affordable units would be included in the project — roughly eight per cent of the total development. The city said it “may be able” to increase that number to 130 affordable units. It is also unclear how much political will there was around the council table to mandate affordable units from Argo.In an earlier email — dated Nov. 24, 2021 — Parsons said local area representative Coun. Palleschi was “not comfortable” including a specific demand for a set number of affordable bedrooms across the development.The email included a draft line for a council motion that would have ordered Argo to promise, “15 per cent of all units in the development will be affordable ownership housing units.”Coun. Palleschi told Global News his work had delivered affordable housing in the project.“There is no legislative requirement for affordable homes to be delivered through developments,” he said in an email. “Regardless of this, in an effort to ensure affordable housing units would be part of the development, I moved away from a specific identified number of units to a percentage in the motion I put forward on November 24th, 2021.”The use of an MZO to push through the development instead of the traditional planning process meant the complicated conversations about affordable housing took place behind closed doors. Councillors, staff and the developer spoke in private instead of at a public meeting, where residents or housing advocates could quiz them.The documents even suggest the city decided against mandating affordable housing within the Argo development after provincial staffers confirmed it was an option.In February 2022, planning staff in Brampton were told the MZO could include caveats that would compel the developer to build affordable housing units. “Attaching the Ministry email confirming that an MZO can include aff(ordable) housing asks,” one planning staffer wrote.A provincial representative told Brampton in another email its affordable housing request was not workable because it was not specific. They said the city would need to ask Argo for a specific number of units to include the demand in any zoning order issued by the housing minister.A spokesperson for Brampton said that provincial staff “had informed City staff that it was not technically appropriate to include references to the delivery of affordable housing units in the MZO.”After Global News cited specific emails showing provincial staff had said that affordable housing could be mandated through the MZO, a spokesperson admitted that provincial “staff advised the number of affordable housing units in the MZO could be included, (but) more general references to requirements for affordable housing could not.”In March 2022, as the MZO headed toward its final stages, Brampton told its provincial counterparts that it was “satisfied that no content regarding Inclusionary Zoning / Housing Affordability” needed to be contained in the wording of the MZO.The decree from Queen’s Park that Argo sought, and Brampton blessed, was granted on March 4, 2022. It did not include any language that would compel the developer to provide affordable housing. 1:30 Ontario’s greenbelt not the cause of GTA housing crunch: Minister

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