With ‘Caledon under threat’, over 150 residents meet to demand action from Town Council, Mayor Annette Groves

It was standing room only inside a church in Caledon East on Wednesday as over 150 residents gathered to question the decision making of Mayor Annette Groves, and demand change after what was described as a takeover of democracy by the rookie mayor, certain members of council and senior staff.

The emergency meeting, hosted by newly-formed advocacy group Democracy Caledon, sought to challenge Groves and her repeated use of Strong Mayor powers, which she has exercised at least four times— including to sign a secretive contract with the Town’s new CAO without the knowledge of her council colleagues. The contract, which provides CAO Nathan Hyde with exorbitant severance pay should he ever be fired, was only made public following a Freedom of Information request by Councillor Dave Sheen who was forced to take his fight to Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner (who provides accountability over the public sector and ensures taxpayers are not being abused by elected officials and bureaucrats who are supposed to answer to residents) when the Town refused to release the document.

Most recently, Groves has brought forward 12 zoning bylaw amendments to fast track the development process for approximately 35,000 new housing units, which would almost double Caledon's population.

Residents have expressed shock and outrage over the way Groves is handling the planning for such a massive development scheme, completely cutting out the public and council, hiring a lawyer with a controversial track record of working with powerful developers to draft her recommendations and hiring a Chief Administrative Officer without ever disclosing how he was chosen or the details of his contract.

Democracy Caledon organizer Debbe Crandall said the plan for the 35,000 homes being forced on residents by Groves “reads like a set of marching orders” from the development community.

The origin of these amendments is unknown. In an unorthodox process, a letter from lawyer Quinto Annibale, a partner at the law firm Loopstra Nixon, appeared on the March 26th council agenda on behalf of Mayor Groves with “direction to council and staff”.

The 128-page document outlined 12 proposed zoning bylaws that “pursuant to instructions” from the mayor, were being provided for “information purposes only”. The lawyer informed council and staff that under her Strong Mayor powers, Groves was requiring these amendments to go to a vote at the April 30 council meeting.

Annibale practices municipal land use planning and development law. This is not the first time he has been involved in controversial development applications in Caledon.

In 2022 he was enlisted by a group of developers who took possession of the Mayfield Golf Club. The developers involved included Michael Rice, CEO of Rice Group, along with Angelo and Julie De Gasperis.

They tasked Annibale with convincing the PC government to rezone 177 acres of land surrounding the golf course from “prime agricultural area”—where no development is allowed— to “rural” land which allows a variety of uses including residential and commercial development. The PC government approved the request.

The same tactic is being recommended in the 12 zoning bylaws proposed by Groves, which seeks to rezone lands designated as agricultural and environmental policy areas to “rural”.

Annibale also represented Green Lane Bathurst LP, a development consortium that owns a parcel of land in King. This parcel was one of the 15 unlocked as part of the Greenbelt scandal. The land was put back into the Greenbelt when the Ford government reversed course. The entire fiasco is currently under criminal investigation by the RCMP.

He has donated at least $46,000 to the Progressive Conservatives since 2014 and sits as a PC-appointed vice-chair of the LCBO.

Annibale did not respond to a request for comment seeking details about the letter or whether he is currently representing any developers or property owners involved with the 12 sites set to be rezoned.

The Pointer asked the Town of Caledon if any staff members were involved in the drafting of the memo or in recommending any of the 12 zoning bylaws.

“The memo was prepared by Loopstra Nixon with information provided by staff,” a spokesperson stated. The spokesperson would not say which staff members were involved, the degree of their involvement, or what information they provided to the law firm.

Mayor Groves would not explain how she chose these 12 parcels of land or if any were chosen with outside influence from developers or property owners.

During Wednesday’s meeting, residents questioned why the Town needed to use their tax dollars to pay an outside lawyer for services that are traditionally provided by Town staff. Groves said the decision was made to seek outside services because the Town did “not have the capabilities in house” to complete the work.

“This is not something that is in our town doctrine,” one resident said. “When did the town become a corporation? When did the mayor become the CEO of a corporation?”

The zoning bylaws were the tipping point for Caledon residents who have become increasingly dissatisfied with Groves and her recent decision-making. In recent months she has backtracked on many of her 2022 mayoral campaign pledges. She has abandoned her opposition to the proposed Highway 413; rammed through an Official Plan with significantly weakened environmental protections; and achieved very little progress toward updating Caledon’s aggregate policies.

Groves, along with almost all of her fellow councillors, attended Wednesday’s meeting. When given a chance to address residents, a clearly frustrated Groves spent her time defending the use of the Strong Mayor powers. She appeared to be on the defensive and many residents told The Pointer they felt she expressed little desire to listen to them.

At the podium, the mayor defended the decision to rush through the series of broad zoning amendments. Most of the properties are near the route of the proposed Highway 413 and many are on or contain portions of the Greenbelt.

Experts say the zoning changes are premature and should not be done before in-depth planning is completed to sort out servicing and infrastructure for these areas.

Groves asserted this will still occur.

“If you read some of the provisions in the draft zoning bylaws, you will see that there are holding provisions to talk about it. It speaks to secondary plans, draft plan process, financials and servicing. So this is not going to happen without all of those things in place,” she said. “This is just to streamline a process. This is not a final decision.”

When asked if she would consider renouncing the Strong Mayor power which gives her the ability to override her democratically elected council, Groves struck down the suggestion with a firm ‘“no”. It was a disappointment for the majority of those in attendance.

Nicola Ross, co-organizer of the event, said she would have liked the mayor to at least concede that she heard the concerns of residents and would consider them in future decision making. That was not the case.

The Town is required under the Planning Act to hold a public meeting on the proposed land-use changes. While that meeting is being held on April 25, before the bylaws go to vote at Council on April 30, there is no guarantee comments from residents will be included in the final bylaws.

Groves said she consulted with each member of council and none had a problem with the bylaws. It was one of several misleading claims the mayor made during her brief speech.

In a statement released following the meeting, Councillor Sheen said that while Mayor Groves did call him to discuss the bylaws, he did not express support for them.

“The mayor called and spoke to me for about 10 minutes, on the Sunday evening, two days before the Council meeting. She explained what she was planning to do and tried to assure me that there would still be safeguards in place to allow further public and Council input and/or control,” Sheen states. “To be clear, I did not express support for the move. Instead, I told her I had only received the agenda on the weekend and did not have any time to review or understand the dense material nor discuss it with anyone to help me understand all the implications.

“I also noted that she was using her Strong Mayor powers to make this move, which she already knew I was opposed to as a matter of principle,” Sheen concluded.

The mayor also asserted the plan was essential to fast track the development of affordable homes as part of the housing targets set by the PC government’s Bill 23.

“Well, that was just clearly wrong,” Victor Doyle, an esteemed urban planner best known as the architect of the Greenbelt, said.

Looking at the legislation, there is nothing under Bill 23 stipulating how many of these homes must be affordable. In fact, Bill 23 came under intense scrutiny from the community for incentivizing the development of sprawling multi-million dollar homes.

“I wasn’t aware that we had a housing crisis for multimillionaires,” Cheryl Connors, a resident of Caledon and longtime activist, stated.

Doyle says he has never seen a plan like the one being proposed by Groves. He says it appears the secondary plans are not complete in the majority of the areas affected, a critical element of the planning process.

Many residents expressed concern that poor planning decisions were ruining the character of Caledon.

(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)

Doyle says without this essential planning step completed, along with in-depth studies surrounding infrastructure and environmental impacts, the Town is not in a position to begin implementing zoning bylaws.

The lands in question were only recently added to Caledon’s urban boundary through the 11,000 acre expansion approved as part of the Region of Peel Official Plan process in 2022. Doyle says there is evidence of detailed planning for some of these parcels, including the identification of natural areas, but there are still significant studies and planning documents that have yet to be completed.

“Until you've done the secondary plan, how can you ensure your zoning is going to conform to it unless you just allow everything under the sun?” Doyle said.

The parameters within the proposed zoning bylaws allow for a wide range of housing and development types. There are no specifications for the types of housing that can be built, allowing anything from dense townhomes and triplexes to sprawling single-family dwellings. There is no indication of how these lands will provide mixed uses and avoid the vast sprawling subdivisions that have created many of the environmental and transportation issues Southern Ontario is experiencing today.

It was noted in a press release published by the Town that the lands would facilitate the development of 35,000 units.

The PC government mandated Caledon to build 13,000 as part of its plan for 1.5 million homes by 2031. According to the Town’s website, it is well on its way to meeting this target. Caledon recently received funding through the PC’s Building Faster Fund for staying on track with its housing goals. This is why many residents are questioning the need to rush through such zoning approvals without adequate public consultation or proper planning procedures.

Groves said the Town is projected to grow from its current population of around 80,000 people to 300,000 by 2051, requiring the construction of approximately 70,000 units over the next three decades.

Groves also argued that streamlining the process would allow the Town to sidestep costly hearings at the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). Doyle said the argument doesn’t make sense.

“If a municipality is working in good faith with the developer, there's virtually no chance they're going to appeal that to the OLT because that'll just cool the whole process and set them back years,” he said.

It is “irresponsible” to approve all of these housing units in one fell swoop, Doyle said, as the needs of communities and the economic and social climate change over time. Instead, he said these bylaws will continue to promote low density development.

“There is an opportunity for Caledon to do something different here and try to do something different in terms of more walkable, 15-minute communities within those thousands and thousands of acres,” he said. “It's a wasted opportunity, and this zoning really cements that.”

Many of the residents who spoke during the meeting lamented the loss of qualities that drew them to Caledon in the first place.

“I’ve been a resident of Caledon for 35 years now and the reason I moved out to Caledon was because there's rural living, it's hamlets, it’s towns it's a whole different little country that is different from Brampton different from Mississauga,” one resident told the crowd. “Planning is building it the same as Brampton. Mayfield West is just an extension of Brampton. There’s no Caledon character at all.”

“One of the reasons my husband and I moved here … is how much we love living in this small town in Caledon and how inclusive Council is of its residents and its community. And we've been very, very disappointed and discouraged by what's been happening as of late,” another resident added. “How is this even possible that the planning hasn't been addressed, that this is happening to us, and we have no say other than one meeting, and the whole process hasn't been followed?”

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories to ensure every resident of Brampton, Mississauga and Niagara has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you

Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer