A Tale of Two Expansions: Expanding the Greenbelt and Expanding MZOs

Two weeks after an announcement that the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (the “Minister”) is seeking feedback on ways to expand the Greenbelt Area (found here), on March 4, 2021, the Provincial government introduced the Supporting Broadband and Infrastructure Expansion Act, 2021 (“Bill 257”). Among other things, Bill 257 proposes to add a new subsection to the Planning Act (the “Act”) which would also expand the Minister’s power to issue ministerial zoning orders (“MZOs”). The Bill’s first reading was carried on the same day (check its status here).  

Currently, the Minister has the authority to issue MZOs, however, pursuant to the Act, the Minister’s decision to zone land must be consistent with the provincial policy statements in effect at the time of their decision, mainly the Provincial Policy Statement, 2020 (the “PPS”). The Minister’s decision must also conform with provincial plans, including the Greenbelt Plan. MZOs are often used to speed up planning approvals for critical projects, such as the approval of long-term homes or affordable housing projects.

Bill 257 proposes to exempt MZOs from the requirement that the order be consistent with the PPS. Further, the exemption is proposed to apply retroactively so that no past, present or future MZOs would have the requirement to be consistent with the PPS. The Provincial government states that this will permit the Minister to take other considerations into account when making decisions, and that these changes would ensure that the Minister has the discretion and authority to provide complete support for critical projects. The government has recently increased its use of MZOs across the Province, causing stakeholder concern that this proposed change will allow the government to fast-track approvals in provincially significant areas, and override challenges that might arise when looking to develop on sensitive lands.

For further clarity, Bill 257 expressly exempts the Greenbelt Area from this exception. An MZO issued on land within the Greenbelt Area will still have to conform with the Greenbelt Plan. This is notable as the government remains firm on its promise to keep development out of the Greenbelt, as demonstrated by its undergoing consultation to expand this area.