‘Reeks of a favour for a friend’: PCs make surprise change to York Region official plan that benefits Aurora developer

By Alan S. Hale November 11, 2022

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas and his council were shocked to discover Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark had gone over their heads and changed York Region’s official plan to allow a large, high-density development that the town had already rejected.

Like other upper- and lower-tier municipalities, York Region spent years preparing its official plan, a long-term land use planning document, before submitting it to the minister. Last Friday, Clark “approved” a fleet of municipal and regional plans, but his unappealable decisions included large-scale amendments, including expanding the boundaries of Hamilton by 2,200 hectares against that city’s will.

The changes to York’s official plan set the minimum density for buildings on a single parcel of land in Aurora at 330 units per hectare and a minimum building height of 12 storeys. That land is owned by a numbered company that hired lobbyist Patrick Lavelle-Tuns in early October to influence Clark.

Per the lobbyist registry, Lavelle-Tuns’ goal was to speak to the minister and his staff to convince the province to “increase density number and Floor Space Index (Floor Area Ratio) number of the land which 2697331 Ontario Inc. bought.”

Lavelle-Tuns, who works for Endgame Strategies, is one of many PC-linked lobbyists that companies often turn to when they want something from the Ford government.

He also previously served as the deputy manager of Premier Doug Ford’s 2018 PC leadership campaign. After that, he worked as a consultant for Upstream Strategy Group, which was founded by Ontario PC Party president Michael Diamond.

“This was absolutely unexpected. There was no consultation with the town, no consultation with the region,” Mrakas told Queen’s Park Today by phone on Thursday. “I hate to say it, but it reeks of a favour for a friend.”

The parcel of land in question owned by Chi Ma, where Municpal Affairs Minister Steve Clark has approved a 12-storey development after Ma hired a lobbyist to get around the Town of Aurora’s objections. (Alan S. Hale)

Mrakas added Clark has not responded to calls from the municipality seeking an explanation of his decision.

Queen’s Park Today reached out to Clark’s office and Lavelle-Tuns seeking comment but did not receive replies.

In March, the company applied to the Town of Aurora for an official plan and zoning bylaw amendment to allow for three seven-storey tall apartment buildings, 12 townhouse blocks and 59 dwelling units on the property in question. After a consultation period, the municipal council turned down the proposal because it was “a little too dense” for that location, according to Mrakas, and the company was asked to come back with a revised plan.

“We felt that there needed to be more work as far as the density. It looked like a big block,” explained the mayor. “We understand that there needs to be something built there. We want to see intensification on that corner, but we wanted something that was more appropriate, within five or six storeys.”

Instead, the company appealed the council’s decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal, where it has yet to have its first hearing, scheduled for December 1.

The appeal argues the development meets the goals of the province’s growth plans by adding new residential units to underutilized lands and is compatible with Aurora’s surrounding mixed-used neighbourhood. There is also a recreation centre across the street and a large commercial plaza close by, the filing notes.

Clark’s decision, which Aurora has no recourse against, appears to make the appeal moot. It also allows for higher density than what the company originally asked the municipality for.

Mrakas argued having such a high-density development in that part of Aurora flies in the face of Clark’s stated goal of creating “transit-oriented communities,” where high-density residential areas are built up around GO stations and other transit hubs. This parcel is 3.5 kilometres from Aurora’s GO station and has limited bus service.

“This is not within our major transportation area, and it makes no sense why the province has cherry-picked this specific parcel of land,” said the mayor.

During the PC’s first term, Clark used Minister’s Zoning Orders to similarly override local planning designations to allow development. Although, in those cases, Clark only did so when a local city council requested an MZO.

By seemingly helping the company make an end-run around the municipality, Mrakas said the minister has gone too far.

“We’ve heard the minister say constantly that he wants to partner with municipalities, to collaborate, to consult,” said Mrakas, who said none of those things happened in this case. “Unfortunately, it seems like when it comes to planning, what we have seen lately — whether it’s Bill 23 or modifications to official plans — is that they are being heavy-handed and going ahead without any consultation with the local municipalities. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Mrakas said he and the town do not know who owns the numbered company behind the project, having only dealt with representatives such as architects during its initial application.

Queen’s Park Today uncovered that the company is owned by an individual named Chi Ma.

Not much is publicly available about their identity. Elections Ontario does not list any political donations to any party by someone of that name.

Queen’s Park Today reached out in person on Thursday to attempt to speak with them, but there was no response, nor to a request for comment left behind asking them to call.

In all, Clark’s decision makes 80 amendments to the official plan submitted by York Region, including stripping some land parcels of their “prime agricultural area” designation.

Critics have said the PC’s recent land use changes, including to allow development on some Greenbelt lands, will only encourage further sprawl in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.