The rise and fall of the Duffins Creek MZO

Less than a year ago, Pickering city council voted to request the zoning edict. This week, it voted in favour of asking the government to rescind part of it. So what changed?
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Mar 23, 2021
Members of a March 6 protest against a proposed development on a parcel of Duffins Creek wetland, in Pickering. (Twitter/Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering)



In a battle between wetland and warehouse, the wetland has won. 

On Monday evening, Pickering city council voted unanimously to request that the Ontario government rescind part of a zoning edict that would have allowed the building of a warehouse of up to 4 million square feet on a large parcel of Duffins Creek wetland. It was a significant about-face for a council that had unanimously voted to request the zoning edict, with expedited consideration, less than a year ago

The decision came after a month of mounting pressure from residents, opposition lawmakers, environmental organizations, and the nearby Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation — all of whom were critical of the current government’s use of minister’s zoning orders to bypass local zoning processes. In mid-March, Amazon, the company set to build and use the warehouse, signaled that the increasingly controversial site was no longer under consideration examines how the high-profile development, which was championed by the Ontario government and by Pickering city council as a major economic driver for Durham, fell apart over the last month. 

map showing the Duffins Creek wetlands
Data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry; mapping by Miles Blanco.

March 4

The Ontario government orders the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to issue a permit allowing the warehouse development to proceed on or before March 12. The TRCA speaks out in a statement, saying its board of directors “under duress, [must] adhere to the Province’s legally mandated directive which conflicts with TRCA’s mandate to further the conservation, development, and management of natural resources in watersheds within our jurisdiction.” It also references changes made in December by Doug Ford’s government that eliminated its power to deny permits in the case of an MZO.  

The same day, the government tables Bill 257, the Supporting Broadband and Infrastructure Expansion Act, which would amend the Planning Act to make explicit that MZOs “are not required and are deemed to never have been required” to be consistent with Ontario's Provincial Policy Statement. As currently written, the PPS restricts development in provincially significant wetlands, such as the parcel in Pickering. (In November 2020, two environmental organizations filed for judicial review of the Duffins Creek MZO, largely on the basis that the government had not considered the PPS in issuing it.) 

March 5

CBC News reports on an internal government document, also acquired by the Ontario NDP, that states, “In the absence of the proposed amendments” — through Bill 257 — there was “moderately high risk” that the MZO issued for Duffins Creek would be found to have contravened the PPS. The document also notes that “in absence of consultation with indigenous [sic] communities potentially impacted by any MZO,” the province was facing risk of further legal challenges. 

Jennifer French, NDP MPP for Oshawa, visits Duffins Creek Marsh with Ally Zaheer and Devin Mathura, university students who had spoken with about their opposition to the MZO. 

March 6

More than 300 people march from the office of Pickering–Uxbridge MPP Peter Bethlenfalvy to Pickering city hall calling for the MZO to be repealed. In the days after, Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering, a local advocacy group that has fought the MZO, also holds phone zaps to call government officials and protests outside the Toronto office of Triple Properties, the developer of the would-be warehouse. 

brown wetland
Looking west over Wetland No. 5 from Squires Beach Road. (Marsha McLeod)

March 8 and 9 

MPPs speak out against the development in the legislature. NDP Finance and Treasury Board Critic Catherine Fife points out that the site's lead developers recently donated nearly $5,000 to the Progressive Conservative party. (Records show that three brothers of the Apostopolous family, each of whom is involved in running the family’s business empire, which includes Triple Properties, made the donations in late February.) 

March 8

Ecojustice, acting on behalf of its clients Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, files a motion to stay the order requiring that the TRCA issue a permit for the warehouse site. “It is a sad day when we have to go to court to force our own government to obey Ontario law,” Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, says in a statement. “It is even more shocking when the government seeks to gut those same laws to avoid being held accountable in court.”

March 10

CBC News reports that the proposed user of the warehouse is Amazon, though the company does not confirm this. 

March 12 

The deadline for the TRCA to issue the permit arrives. The authority, in a morning meeting, recommends a set of mitigating conditions for the permit to proceed and states that it is being issued only because the provincial government had forced its hand. “In staff’s opinion the removal of a Provincially Significant Wetland and its associated ecosystem of this size and in this location has negative consequences for the natural environment and is not in the public interest,” reads the memo. 

At 11:25 a.m., CBC News reports that Amazon Canada is no longer considering the site for a warehouse. In a comment, a spokesperson for Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, tells the publication that he plans to ask Pickering and Durham region whether they want the MZO to be changed to remove the portion of land that was to be used for the warehouse. (The MZO pertains to a parcel of land on the west side of Squires Beach Road — where the warehouse was to be built — as well as to a portion on the east side of the road, which is largely not being contested.) 

By the afternoon, Pickering mayor Dave Ryan has released a statement on Twitter about the loss of the project, calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”  

March 14

In a “voluntary promise,” the developer agrees in court not to damage the wetland, at least until the judicial review filed on behalf of Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature has reached its conclusion in divisional court

March 15 

Chief Kelly LaRocca, of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, calls on the Ford government to rescind the MZO: “With support waning from Amazon, the City of Pickering, and the developers themselves, MSIFN once again calls on the Ford government to withdraw their MZO.” 

Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering continues picketing outside Pickering city hall and calls on the mayor to ask the province to remove the MZO and for Schedule 3 to be removed from Bill 257. 

March 22

Pickering city council sits to decide whether to rescind its request to Clark for an MZO — and to vote on a report that recommends it request that the western portion of land be removed from the MZO. 

“Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to talk to people from all different walks of life, yet they all want the same thing: protect and restore Ontario’s green spaces,” says Zaheer in a deputation to council, adding that members should listen to residents and “own up to their mistakes.”  

After more than 15 delegations, including from Tim Gray, Anne Bell of Ontario Nature, and LaRocca (who asked that the council rescind the entire MZO), the council votes unanimously to request that the minister rescind the portion of the MZO that would see the wetland paved over for a warehouse. 

March 23

Clark posts on Twitter that he will follow the direction of Pickering city council. "When it comes to MZOs on non-provincial land, municipalities are in the driver’s seat," he says.

For more on this subject, read Marsha McLeod's story ‘"Poster child for destruction’: The fight to save the Duffins Creek wetland from developers."

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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