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Provincial minister TKO's MZO request for Oro-Medonte project

'I think that (the minister) has made the right decision,' says Barrie mayor; Oro-Medonte mayor worries decision could derail project
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark is shown in a file photo.

A Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) for a controversial Oro-Medonte Township development has been deep-sixed by the minister himself.

Steve Clark, Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, has rejected an MZO for a mixed-use development at 121 Penetanguishene Rd., that would have cleared the way for this project to proceed.

This 133-acre property, owned by the McLean family for generations, sits right along Barrie’s border. It requires Official Plan and zoning-bylaw amendments to turn farmland into seniors and long-term care space, affordable housing and parkland. There is a house and several farming-related buildings on the property now.

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said ‘no’ is the right answer to the request for an MZO.

“By turning down the MZO, the minister is ensuring that the full planning process, which includes public involvement, can still occur,” he said. “I am not surprised, as there has been local opposition in Oro to the proposal as well as the concerns expressed by Barrie.”

An MZO cannot be appealed to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), formerly the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

“Planning is a public process and my opinion is that public process should only be over-ridden by the minister when there are little or no public concerns, and where there are no land-use planning or related concerns, and the matter is urgent and/or of provincial significance,” Lehman said. “I don't believe this matter fulfils those tests.”

Coun. Clare Riepma, who represents nearby Ward 1 in east-end Barrie, said that when speaking with ministry officials at a summer conference, he was told Clark would not approve an MZO if the involved municipalities did not agree.

“I think that he has made the right decision. The McLean proposal is a large and very significant proposal that should follow the normal planning process,” Riepma said. “While it is in a neighbouring municipality, much of the impact — traffic, services, etc. — falls on the City of Barrie and especially the people in Ward 1.

“To short-circuit the planning process for such a significant project is not appropriate," he added. 

But Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes said the minister’s decision could delay the project, which would now have to go through regular planning channels — a public meeting, a staff report and township council approval.

“Certainly to go through the zoning process can take you up to 10 years, and that’s one of the reasons that we have what I call a housing crisis, particularly for young people and people in the later stages of life,” he said. “We have a crisis in that kind of housing, and certainly the private sector will (build) that, but they will not go through the long process with the zoning.

“The notion of this project was, in my mind, a real boost to the services for not only people in Oro-Medonte, but people right across Simcoe County. The minister obviously has his reasons (for declining to approve the MZO),” Hughes added.

A reason for the decision has not been made public by the ministry.

“The minister will not be issuing a Minister’s Zoning Order for this site, and has informed the municipality of his decision,” said Adam Wilson, Clark’s communications director. “The decision to issue an MZO is at the sole discretion of the minister. As such, the minister has considered the request and declined to issue an MZO.”

In August, Barrie city council approved a motion that staff’s technical comments from a June 22, 2020 memorandum, along with additional technical comments in a staff report, be formally submitted to Clark regarding the requested MZO.

The minister was also formally advised that Barrie city council opposes the development principle for the McLean property, being established by a MZO because it circumvents the technical report preparation and review process needed for good planning and transparent decision making.

“MZOs were never meant to establish the ‘principle of development’ for a proposal of this magnitude; essentially a secondary plan in any urban municipality,” Andrea Miller, Barrie’s general manager of infrastructure and growth management, said in her June 22 memo to council.

“This is essentially an end-run on local planning and transparent decisions that are made in the public interest," she added. 

But when Hughes knocked on doors during the last election campaign, he says people were concerned about what was going to happen to them when they can no longer live in their own home, or had to downsize later on in life.

“Should they need care, there really wasn’t anything viable within Oro-Medonte or within a reasonable distance even, that was open to them,” he said. “The reason we advanced (the McLean project) was to be able to get those services.

“What the McLean project was all about…it was really extending urban agriculture and the application ticked all of the boxes (for) what the ministry was trying to achieve,” Hughes added.

Simcoe County council had also thrown its support behind the McLean family’s request to have an MZO approved by the minister.