Ontario’s auditor general has confirmed it is investigating the government’s use of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO) to open up development opportunities in the province while overriding local approval processes.

In a letter dated Oct. 6 to the official opposition, Acting Auditor General Nick Stravropoulos confirmed that an audit on the government’s process for selecting and approving Minister’s Zoning Orders was chosen “as part of their normal audit selection process.”

The audit began on Aug. 30.

The NDP had written to Stravropoulos’ office in late September asking that the auditor general investigate the expansion of some municipal boundaries as well as the government’s land-use policies.

In their request, the NDP claimed that there was evidence that some developers who stood to benefit from the Greenbelt land removals were also given preferential treatment when it came to the government’s decision to change municipal official plans.

“In many cases the ministerial changes to OPs, including mandated urban boundary expansions, evidently conflicted with provincial policy and the recommendations of professional staff planners in municipalities such as Hamilton, Ottawa, Waterloo, York, Peel, Niagara, Peterborough, Halton and Wellington,” the NDP wrote at the time.

“We ask that your office specifically consider whether such decisions were evidence-based and consistent with provincial plans, policies and statutes, as well as their impact on the smooth functioning of municipal and provincial planning and approval processes.”

A MZO is a provincial mechanism that allows the government to re-zone a piece of land and override municipal development constrictions.

Recently in May, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie spoke out about the use of the controversial tool to double the size of a mixed-use community and fast-track developments on two other parcels of land.

The auditor general noted two years ago that the Progressive Conservative government was frequently using MZOs to overcome potential barriers and delays to development.

Forty-four MZOs were issued by the government between March 2019 and March 2021. In the past, about one was issued per year, the 2021 report said.

The auditor general found that about 17 of the 44 orders were issued to the same seven development groups.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in a statement that MZO's "have predominantly been granted at the request of local municipal councils and they have helped to support the construction of over 117,000 housing units, and accelerate the creation of approximately 5,500 desperately needed long-term care beds"

"While we are pleased with these results, Minister Calandra has asked the Ministry to review and provide options for a “use it or lose it” criteria for MZOs to ensure these priorities continue to be delivered. We are fully prepared to revoke any MZO that does not get shovels in the ground quickly on these much needed projects," Chris Poulos wrote.

It’s not clear when the auditor general's office will submit its latest report.

With files from the Canadian Press.