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Minister says he will revoke Blair warehouse MZO unless city consults with Indigenous groups

City of Cambridge says site plan approval for warehouse was received Nov. 10 and it will now seek comment from First Nations
Signs posted by a group opposed to a mega warehouse approved for Old Mill Road in Blair demand the city stop the project and rescind the Minister's Zoning Order.

The Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has given the City of Cambridge until Nov. 30 to provide evidence it consulted with the community and Indigenous groups on the Blair mega warehouse project, or he will revoke a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) granted in August.

Broccolini Real Estate Group's application to build a million-square foot “e-commerce” distribution warehouse on Old Mill Road is expected to bring up to 1,400 jobs to the city.

The city requested an MZO for the development last year because it was deemed integral to economic recovery during the pandemic. 

But during Monday’s Question Period at Queen's Park, Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios asked Minister Steve Clark why he granted that approval when residents voiced their clear disapproval.

Karahalios pointed out that initial public consultation for the land use began in 2012 and ended in 2016 with zoning in place for multiple light industrial facilities on the site; a much different use than "one big, massive industrial facility."

"Despite the fact that consultation was done that long ago for a different facility and the use of the new facility remains a secret mystery, and Blair residents are against the project, and Six Nations were not consulted on the development, the minister approved the project anyway," Karahalios said. "Why did you approve this project?"

In response, Clark said MZO approval came at the request of the city and he has since written to Mayor Kathryn McGarry and asked "specifically from a council perspective, had they done their due diligence in terms of consultation with the local community."

Clark said the city confirmed to him that "not only had they done their due diligence but they also reaffirmed that they requested a Minister’s Zoning Order."

The controversial  planning tool allows municipalities and the province to bypass typical Planning Act requirements and expedite development applications for priorities like transit, affordable housing, long term care homes and economic recovery. 

Karahalios said the province isn’t listening to local voices and is instead "hiding behind the decisions of local councils who are going rogue."

"What assurances are in place to hold municipal councils in check when they go rogue on their constituents and try to hammer ahead against the will of their residents?" she asked.

"We’ve been crystal clear," Clark said. "If the community does not do the Indigenous consultation, I will revoke the MZO. I’ve written and indicated that it’s our expectation that they’re going to do these consultations, that they’re going to have these discussions...or it’ll be revoked. Plain and simple."

The city confirmed it received a letter from Minister Clark, dated Oct. 27, asking for staff to provide the outcome of its consultations with residents and Indigenous communities.

In response to questions from CambridgeToday, city communications director Susanne Hiller said the delay in responding to the minister is due to the fact the city only received the final set of documents related to Broccolini’s site plan application on November 10.

On the same day, staff determined it to be a complete site plan application in accordance with the Planning Act. 

"It will now be circulated for comment to various agencies, stakeholders and First Nations," she wrote. 

The site plan has also been posted for public review on the city’s website under Current Development Applications for Old Mill Road.

Hiller said a response from the city to Minister Clark’s letter will be sent by November 30 with an update, noting a complete site plan for the lands encompassed in the Minister’s Zoning Order was just received.

The Traffic Impact Study and Heritage Impact Assessment will also be tabled to council at a later date and be open for delegations, she added.

Speaking to the latest development on Wednesday was Tim Armstrong, a vocal member of the 'Blair Engaged' concerned citizens group that has regularly staged protests and voiced opposition to the planned development in their neighbourhood. Speaking with CityNews Kitchener, Armstrong argued the project has included "no engagement at all", as he said to this point his group has not been able to speak with members of Cambridge council or the city. 

"We were aware that the minister had written a letter to Cambridge Council requesting that they provide documentation or proof that they have done their due diligence and consulted with residents as well as the first nations. We believe that was all precipitated by the fact that the First Nations has a constitutional right to be consulted." said Armstrong. "We also think there's a constitutional obligation for them to consult with us - although it's not written in the constitution but it would be a novel argument to put in front of a court and see…"

With regards to the news that the City of Cambridge will be circulating Broccolini's site plan for public review, as well as conducting a Traffic Impact Study and Heritage Impact Assessment with delegations, Armstrong argued the process was "a bit of a sham", likening it to performing a "performance improvement process" for an employee that's already been fired. 

"Now they're going to say 'okay, we'll do consultation' but the ministry's zoning order is still in play, the city planner can now approve a building permit because they have a site plan... I mean, what consultation is there? There is none - they're just going to be able to check that box." said Armstrong. "If the Minister has any integrity at all, he'll know it's a sham."

Armstrong also indicated that the Blair Engaged group is "currently investigating" moving forward with engaging a judge to rule on the legality of the minister's zoning order with a judicial review. 

In combing through the over one-thousand pages of documentation included in the site plan, Armstrong alleges that he and his neighbours have found "a bunch of deficiencies", as he argued that Cambridge council "won't ask tough questions because they don't want to offend Amazon or Broccolini." Armstrong specifically took issue with a figure mentioned by the developer noting the project would bring "130 transport trucks" in and out of the facility per day - a figure he said is "bologna".

"I would challenge 130 transport trucks a day, in and out, just on the fact that they've got 110 loading docks. That means they're barely turning their loading docks once a day in a twenty-four hour period."

Continuing their efforts against the proposed development, Blair Engaged has also recently reached out to the Ombudsman's Office in attempts to call Kathryn McGarry's eligibility to hold office into question, as they have begun their own investigation to determine whether or not the Mayor of Cambridge actually resides in the municipality. 

CityNews has received the following statement from a spokesperson from the Mayor's office addressing these concerns.

"Mr. Armstrong has been notified several times that Mayor McGarry more than meets the required legislation and continues to maintain eligibility to be a member of Council and serve as Mayor." 

According to Section 256 of the Municipal Act, it states the following.

"Every person is qualified to be elected or to hold office as a member of a council of a local municipality, (a) who is entitled to be an elector in the local municipality under section 17 of the Municipal Elections Act, 1996; and (b)who is not disqualified by this or any other Act from holding the office. 2001, c. 25, s. 256

The definition in section 256 incorporates section 17 of the Municipal Elections Act: (2) A person is entitled to be an elector at an election held in a local municipality if, on voting day, he or she, (a) resides in the local municipality or is the owner or tenant of land there, or the spouse of such owner or tenant; (b)is a Canadian citizen; (c) is at least 18 years old; and (d) is not prohibited from voting under subsection (3) or otherwise by law. 2002, c. 17, Sched. D, s. 5 (2); 2005, c. 5, s. 46 (1).

While Armstrong said he's aware that the group's concerns may be interpreted as a "Not in My Backyard" mentality, he countered by encouraging community members to read into the site's rumoured occupant, Amazon, as he said the group has posted much of its own research on their Save Blair website. 

"We're very concerned about the impact they're going to have environmentally on the watershed here in Blair, and Blair Creek  and other things. I don't think we really understand the impact of 80 per cent coverage on an area of land that does a great deal of regenerating the aquifer here in this area - that's our main concern." said Armstrong. "We understand what's coming into our community. It's not pretty, and we're very concerned about it."

- With files from CityNews Reporter, Luke Schulz


Doug Coxson

About the Author: Doug Coxson

Doug has been a reporter and editor for 25 years, working mainly in Waterloo region and Guelph
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