Premier Doug Ford’s government copied, word for word, a developer’s requested changes to Hamilton’s official plan to allow an eight-storey condo at the current site of a designated heritage building — blindsiding city planning staff, elected officials and residents.
The application for the condo building had been rejected by city staff and council in the spring of 2022.
The request was emailed to then-Housing Minister Steve Clark by planner Matt Johnston on behalf of developers Sergio Manchia and Frank Spallacci on Oct. 4, 2022, one month before the province announced these amendments and dozens of others to Hamilton’s official plan.
The Ancaster land on Wilson and Lorne Streets is owned by Manchia and Spallacci’s corporation Wilson St. Ancaster Inc.
CBC Hamilton has obtained three of Johnston’s requests and one from Manchia submitted to the Ministry of Housing while it was accepting public feedback about changing Hamilton’s official plan, a key planning document that sets the rules for future development.
While most of the comments appear publicly on the province’s website, Johnston and Manchia’s requests do not.
Along with the Wilson Street development submission, Johnston requested Manchia’s Barton Street East property be removed from the Greenbelt. Manchia also asked for rural land he and Spallacci owned near Hamilton’s airport to be added to the urban boundary so it could be developed.
While the majority of comments from the public opposed the province making changes to Hamilton’s official plan, Johnston and Manchia’s submissions were all accepted, revealing the influence they appear to have had on provincial staff at the time.
Manchia and Spallacci did not respond to requests for comment.
Johnston told CBC Hamilton he is not a lobbyist but instead provides governments recommendations and was participating in the public engagement process.
“We acknowledge that the provincial changes to the official plan were consistent with our recommendations,” he said in an email.
Local resident Jim MacLeod, a member of the Ancaster Village Heritage Community, described the province’s process that allowed Manchia’s Wilson Street development to go ahead as “really disturbing.”
“It looks really bad when you’ve got [official plan changes] up for approval from the province and someone is influencing it in the background,” said MacLeod. “It’s not just this development. It’s the next one and the next one.”
Johnston met with province about requests
This was not the first time Johnston had spoken to the province about land owned by Manchia, nor the only client Johnston represented. Johnston and Manchia are both principals at Manchia’s planning company UrbanSolutions.
An integrity commissioner’s report into the province’s Greenbelt plans found Johnston, who attended Ford’s daughter’s stag and doe last summer, met with top Ministry of Housing staff on Oct. 31, 2022, to “verify his comfort level” with changes to Hamilton’s official plan. Johnston told the integrity commissioner he left the meeting satisfied.
On Nov. 4, the province announced its amendments, which was the first time city planners said they learned of the changes. Along with the Wilson Street development request, the province accepted Johnston’s suggestions for other clients to allow for housing to be built in Stoney Creek and Hamilton’s Westdale neighbourhood.
These changes also expanded Hamilton’s urban boundary.
Featured VideoIn November 2022, Premier Doug Ford’s government ordered the expansion of some cities’ municipal boundaries, instantly turning certain parcels of agricultural land from rural to urban. Housing Minister Paul Calandra now says the government will reverse those expansions after “too much involvement” from then-Housing Minister Steve Clark’s office.
This week, new Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced he’ll be reversing the official plan changes for 12 municipalities, including Hamilton. He’s been reviewing past decisions to make sure they were made in a way that “maintains and reinforces public trust.”
“It is now clear that they failed to meet this test,” he said in a statement Monday.
Johnston said UrbanSolutions is currently looking into how province’s announcement may impact their projects.
Unclear if all changes can be undone
Earlier last year, city staff and council rejected Manchia’s application to allow the eight-storey, 118-unit Wilson Street development to go ahead as it contradicted Hamilton’s zoning rules and had faced public opposition.
“The proposal is not considered to be good planning and is considered an overdevelopment of the site,” a staff report said in the spring of 2022.
The development would also require moving an 183-year-old two-storey house, known as the Marr Phillippo House, protected under Ontario’s Heritage Act. The developers had pitched moving the house from Wilson Street to a back corner of the property.
The developers appealed the city’s decision to the province’s land tribunal. But after the province changed Hamilton’s official plan to allow the building, the city realized it did not have “leverage” and decided to settle, said a notice from the local councillor in July.
That means the city has allowed the development to proceed as long as it meets certain conditions related to moving the Marr-Phillippo House.
Now, with the minister announcing he’d roll back those official plan changes, the city says it is figuring out what that means for the site.
Staff have 45 days to identify all provincial modifications which should be removed, as well as identify costs incurred by the city, staff said in a communication update to council on Monday.
As of Tuesday, no work had begun to relocate the heritage home or build the condos on the site.
MacLeod said Ancaster needs to grow upwards to meet the city’s housing targets, but he wants it to be done in a way that preserves the town’s heritage.
“It’s very disappointing when something as significant as eight storeys going into the village core of Ancaster is approved and there’s no public process,” he said.