Developers at Ford Family Wedding Received Fast-Track Zoning Approvals, Raising Concerns of Conflicts of Interest

Ontario Government's Greenbelt Reversal Raises Legal Concerns
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers during a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)

Developers who were guests at a Doug Ford family wedding reception have come under spotlight after receiving rapid zoning approvals from the Ford government, leading to intensified scrutiny over the potential conflict of interest.

According to CBC News, Premier Doug Ford’s government has made use of Minister’s zoning orders (MZOs), a potent provincial tool that overrides local planning rules to swiftly rezone specific lands, at an unparalleled pace since he took office. An astonishing 110 MZOs have been handed out since 2019, a stark contrast to the mere 18 issued by the previous Liberal governments between 2003 and 2018.

Interestingly, the Ontario NDP’s tally discovered that just four guests at the Ford family wedding benefited from as many MZOs as the Liberals granted in their entire 15-year reign. The Ford government has always justified its increased use of MZOs as a means to prompt housing projects or to cut through the bureaucracy of essential provincial initiatives.

However, these defenses now seem shaky after investigations by Ontario’s integrity commissioner and the auditor general discovered potential improprieties. Specifically, they found that the government may have unduly advantaged certain developers by green-lighting their Greenbelt properties for housing developments. Questions are now arising about the government’s motives behind these MZOs.

According to CBC News, the new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Paul Calandra, shared that he’s close to completing a review of all MZOs previously granted. However, despite recent steps to restore land to the Greenbelt, Calandra has hinted at only a minor reversal of MZOs, stating that he’s generally “not concerned.”

Opposition parties, however, hold a different view. “We see lots of evidence that the government should be very, very worried about the process for handing out MZOs,” said Jeff Burch, the NDP’s municipal affairs critic. Green Party leader Mike Schreiner has also called for a comprehensive review of the MZO process.

By granting an MZO, the provincial government instantly changes the zoning rules for a specific property, increasing the potential value of the land at the stroke of a pen. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

The lack of transparency in the government’s process of issuing MZOs has also been flagged by Ontario’s auditor general. A 2021 report found that almost 40% of the MZOs given over a two-year period benefited just seven development companies. “Such a pattern opens the MZO process to criticisms of conflict of interest and unfairness,” stated then-auditor general Bonnie Lysyk.

Public records also highlight potential favorites in the MZO distribution process. For instance, Flato Developments, owned by Shakir Rehmatullah, received nine MZOs, more than any other developer in Ontario. Furthermore, two companies represented by lobbyist Nico Fidani-Diker, who worked in Ford’s office, were also granted MZOs.

According to CBC News, the integrity commissioner’s probe revealed that Rehmatullah played a role in three requests that eventually saw the Ford government sanction Greenbelt land parcels for housing. Notably, Rehmatullah and Fidani-Diker both confirmed their attendance at Ford’s daughter’s wedding in August 2022.

With the revelations from the Greenbelt investigations and the recent promise reversals by Premier Ford, many await Minister Calandra’s decision on the future of the MZOs. Whether there will be a significant retraction remains to be seen.