In 2018, determined to finally remove the Ontario Liberals, Doug Ford, while speaking privately to a room full of builders, promised if they helped him get elected, he would “open up the Greenbelt, not all of it, we’re going to open a big chunk” at the request of “some of the biggest developers in this country”. 

Despite publicly backtracking following widespread backlash when the widely viewed leaked video exposed his plan to destroy parts of the beloved (and ostensibly protected) greenspace that arcs above the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has just exposed part of the Ford PC government’s blueprint to carry out what the Premier has made a priority since first courting powerful building-sector donors to help him become the Ontario leader.

After getting caught on video Ford made repeated claims that his government was “expanding the Greenbelt. We will not build on the Greenbelt. We’ll make sure we protect the Greenbelt,” which he said in 2021. 

While regularly uttering the same claim, Ford simultaneously pushed various policies, such as the controversial 413 Highway, and oversaw the crafting of housing legislation that would justify and allow the opening of the protected Greenbelt for powerful developers such as Silvio De Gasperis, a longtime political donor to Ford going back to his days as a failed Toronto mayoral candidate in 2014. 

Lysyk reported that “In June 2022, the Premier provided the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (Steve Clark) with the direction to ‘complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt,’” a blatant contradiction of what Ford had been claiming publicly for more than three years, that he would not allow any development in the Greenbelt. 

A month later, Ford’s office hand-picked the man who would secretly carry out the scheme to approve Greenbelt construction exactly where De Gasperis and another developer, Michael Rice, instructed the PCs to grant land swaps in the previously protected Greenbelt.

The political staffer took the instructions from two developers in envelopes handed to him at a September, 2022 dinner hosted by BILD, the principal lobby group for the residential building industry. 

The day after the instructions were handed to the PC staffer, who had been given the role of chief of staff in Housing Minister Clark’s office, a parcel of land in King Township, in the Greenbelt, was sold to one of the two developers for $80 million. It would be part of the approximately 6,800 acres in the Greenbelt controlled by the two developers, of the 7,400 that was eventually approved by Ford for future home construction.

Lysyk estimates the decision by Ford to greenlight the development will increase the value of the land held by De Gasperis and Rice by almost $8 billion. 

Lysyk reported that the assessed value of the 7,413 acres slated for future development in the Greenbelt had been $240 million. Now, after Ford’s decision, the land is valued at $8.523 billion. 

In total, there are 15 parcels in the Greenbelt, many of them bought by developers after Ford won the 2022 election.

The investigative work by Lysyk and her team provides a week-by-week account of how Ford and his PC colleagues set out to give some of the country’s most powerful developers exactly what they asked for.

The audit, which was requested by the leaders of the three opposition parties earlier in the year, found that ‘certain developers’ were favoured in the selection of lands to be removed from Ontario’s protected greenspace. Lysyk’s report concluded that the lands chosen for removal from the Greenbelt in November were not chosen objectively or transparently. She also obliterated the PC government’s claim that these lands were needed to provide 50,000 housing units to help meet the goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031. Lysyk, speaking with chief planners in the regions where these lands were taken from, concluded there was more than enough available, fully serviced property outside the Greenbelt to reach this goal. A similar conclusion was reached by the PC government’s own Housing Affordability Taskforce. The 1.5 million homes had already been fully allocated to Ontario municipalities before the Greenbelt lands were added to existing areas slated for future growth. 

“This was a flawed process. This was a biased process. We think what we saw was preferential treatment,” Lysyk stated in a press conference following the release of the report Wednesday.

Rather than conducting an extensive assessment of boundary change requests, as had been done by the previous Liberal government in 2017, the PC government embarked on what Lysyk refers to as the ‘Greenbelt Plan’ hand picking which developers would see immense profit from the selection of their lands—developers who also were large donors to the PC party. Despite the fact that almost 630 site removal requests have been submitted to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing since the Greenbelt was established in 2005, only 22 parcels were reviewed by the PC’s Greenbelt Project team — a small group of non-public servants — 21 were identified directly by the chief of staff. Lysyk emphasizes that the process was heavily influenced by developers who had access to the chief of staff. The team was given just three weeks to complete the task.

While media reports beginning in November and leading up to the release of the audit Wednesday raised questions about whether developers may have been tipped off on which lands to purchase in order to benefit from subsequent policy decisions, the audit reveals it was actually the opposite that unfolded. Developers had approached the chief of staff instructing him about the removal of their lands, including handing over packages of documents during the Building Industry and Land Development dinner in September of 2022.

Rice and De Gasperis provided packages containing information about two of the Greenbelt land sites to the chief of staff, who told Lysyk that one of the two developers provided him with additional information and requests to remove three more parcels of land. These five sites represent approximately 92 percent of the land area removed from the Greenbelt late last year by the PCs. 

“The government and its ministries need to show that they are transparent in decision making, and that they act fairly in the interests of all Ontarians,” Lysyk said. Ford and Clark’s response to the audit suggests these values are still not a concern of the current government. 

Despite the damaging findings, Ford is refusing to revisit the decision to remove the lands from the Greenbelt—Lysyk’s key recommendation, and the only one Ford and Clark are choosing to ignore, as they publicly stated Wednesday. 

In laying out her 15 recommendations, Lysyk has essentially put the PCs on the spot, painting the picture of how the ‘Greenbelt Plan’ unfolded and was handled, and asserting that the legislation be reviewed and reversed. She detailed numerous violations of policies already in place, intended to govern critical processes to protect the public.

The Ford government blatantly ignored the advice of its own housing task force, which, in 2022, concluded that a shortage of land was not at the root of the housing crisis across the province. Despite the evidence, the PCs continued to cite the panel as a source of its housing targets. 

“The report [from the task force] also said that the Greenbelt’s land and other environmentally sensitive areas should continue to be protected,” Lysyk notes. The chief planners of York, Hamilton and Durham regions, directly impacted by the Greenbelt carve outs, had also publicly stated that encroaching into the Greenbelt was not necessary to meet the housing targets allotted to them. 

In a press conference following the release of Lysyk’s report Wednesday, Premier Ford and Minister Clark repeatedly stated the deeply flawed, secretive process to open up the the Greenbelt was motivated by a need to move quickly to get houses built in the face of an ongoing crisis. 

Clark said the entire process—which he claims was led by an unelected staff member making decisions that created over $8 billion in value for large PC donors by skirting public consultation rules; ignoring provincial planning rules; shredding the Environmental Bill of Rights; shunning experts from both inside and outside the government and ignoring values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the duty to consult with Indigenous stakeholders—was all “a symptom of the speed”. 

The Greenbelt carve-outs are the latest example of a PC development strategy that has prioritized residential sprawl, and loosening growth and environmental regulations that Ford and his government have repeatedly claimed contribute to Ontario’s existing housing crisis. Going back to the beginning of his first term, Ford and his PCs have repeatedly shown disregard for existing land use planning principles designed to create sustainable and livable communities. The PC’s eliminated the concept of urban boundaries forcing municipalities to expand and allow growth outside their limits, even when it was opposed; the PCs gutted the mandate of conservation authorities, limiting their ability to challenge development proposals, even if those projects were in dangerous areas like floodplains; the PCs have consistently issued permits to developers which allow them to harm species at risk habitat, they have never denied a permit to harm species at risk habitat and many of these permits are approved automatically; the PCs have rapidly increased the issuance of Minister’s Zoning Orders, a tool previously only relied on in emergency situations which the Ford government have now used as a tool to give handouts to developers to build in wetlands and other sensitive areas. It doesn’t end there. The PCs are pushing two developer-fuelled highways—Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass—which would destroy incredibly sensitive ecosystems, and in the case of the 413, open up further swaths of the Greenbelt for development. The PCs changed the mandate of the Ontario Land Tribunal (previously the Ontario Municipal Board), making the rules more favorable to the development industry; and most recently, Ford labelled the Greenbelt “a scam”. 

“Doug Ford has previously called the Greenbelt a scam, but the Auditor General report clearly indicates where the scam is,” Andrew McCammon, executive director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, told The Pointer.

Lysyk’s report details how the the PC staffers tasked with recommending plots of lands for removal from the Greenbelt—the same plots handpicked by developers who gave instructions to Clark’s chief of staff—were forced to change the rules in order to make some of the plots qualify for removal. The chief of staff originally instructed lands to be considered on the basis of infrastructure availability, but given the tight time frame, when the team he worked with said this was impossible to complete, the criterion was removed. 

The single criterion that considered environmental and agricultural factors was removed after the realization that none of the initial sites studied would qualify. In the end, 13 of the 15 parcels chosen for removal contain land designated for specialty crops or Natural Heritage land systems. 

The favouring of developers was revealed in how particular parcels of land were altered in order to make them eligible for removal. One of the criteria for the lands chosen was that parcels had to be situated on the edge of the Greenbelt in order to be adjacent to an already existing community. Eight of the initial 22 sites analyzed did not meet this objective and four sites were consequently altered to still be included in the removal. 

“Our government continues to believe that building more homes is one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing our province and we will not relent in our commitment to build a minimum of 1.5 million homes in 10 years, including by delivering attainable and affordable homes on the lands unlocked from the Greenbelt,” the PCs stated in response to Lysyk’s audit.

Ford’s repeated claim that the PCs are prioritizing affordability in the push for 1.5 million homes is not supported by any policy within their housing strategy. 

Ford repeatedly said in the press conference following the release of the report that he hears from young people who are unable to afford a home. There is no stipulation in any PC legislation that details requirements for affordable housing. Under Bill 23, affordable is defined as 80 percent of market value — which is far out of reach for middle-income earners and those on fixed incomes. The Region of Peel’s affordable housing waitlist doubled in just two years to approximately 28,000 households at the end of 2021. 

Ford later contradicted himself, claiming when asked about new immigrants being able to afford these homes in the Greenbelt that “eventually” they would, while repeatedly pointing out there is no way youth and many others can afford homes in most of Ontario. The claim of immigration as a key reason for opening up more land for development, in order to make housing more affordable for them, has already been debunked

Lysyk estimates the 15 parcels removed from the Greenbelt could see a collective value increase of $8.3 billion. 

“Those estimates were assessed relative to MPAC’s most recent full assessment on January 1, 2016, and did not account for additional increases in Ontario land values between 2016 and 2023,” she pointed out, meaning the eventual value increase could be far more than $8.3 billion. 

The Premier and Minister Clark stated developers will pay for the associated infrastructure for development on these parcels, but Bill 23 curtails development charge revenues and eliminates DCs entirely when building affordable housing.

“I tried to pretend that this is again, all about housing. The auditor has made it very clear this was never, ever about housing,” NDP leader Marit Stiles stated in a press conference. “[This government] chose to waste a ton of time, and a lot of energy and a lot of resources to waste $8.3 billion in the end to make some people very, very rich who are already very wealthy.”

There was a glaring lack of consultation with municipalities, environmental organizations and private citizens to get involved in the process, Lysyk found. Under the Environmental Bill of Rights, legislative changes must be posted on the Environmental Registry of Ontario and allow for public comments for a minimum of 30 days. The notice, posted on November 4, 2022, outlined proposals to “amend the Greenbelt boundary regulation; amend the Greenbelt Plan; re-designate land in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Area; and revoke a 2003 Minister’s Zoning Order limiting land use in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) to agriculture.”

Lysyk found the notices were “incomplete and inaccurate” and did not describe environmental, social and economic consequences of implementing the changes. The PCs have been put on notice about their inaccurate ERO postings in the past. A similar finding was made in Lysyk’s 2021 audit of Ontario’s species at risk file

Despite the consultation period being limited to 30 days, 35,000 comments were still received. Lysyk found the comments were not properly analyzed as set out in the Environmental Bill of Rights and no changes were made to the legislation before it was passed, despite most of the comments being “overwhelmingly negative”.

Ford and Clark repeatedly claimed during their press conference that they were unaware of how the process to open up 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land unfolded, suggesting Clark’s chief of staff acted on his own when making critical decisions. 

As an unelected political bureaucrat, the chief of staff is supposed to implement the decisions of those elected officials chosen by voters. Clark and Ford claim they were never aware of how the 15 parcels were selected, when the entire process under their direct leadership was unfolding.

Clark indicated to Lysyk that he was first made aware of the specific land plots chosen for removal from the Greenbelt on October 26, while the Premier found out on November 1. 

“Given the high level of public interest that any change to the Greenbelt’s boundary was expected to carry, the Housing Minister ought to have known the process used that would lead to the removal of land from the Greenbelt, and ensure that Cabinet and the Premier were also made aware of these details,” Lysyk states in the audit. 

It is public knowledge how Ford has felt about the Greenbelt since before being elected in 2018. 

“The demand for single dwelling homes is huge,” he told a room full of developers, ahead of his first provincial election. “I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in this country, and again, I wish I could say it’s my idea, but it was their idea as well. Give us property and we’ll build, and we’ll drive the costs down.” 

He had begun his pitch by promising to “open a big chunk” of the Greenbelt for them.

The claims by Ford and Clark were called “dubious” and “implausible” by Stiles who said she was hard pressed to believe they were not involved in putting $8.3 billion in the hands of the uber rich while countless new and established Canadians struggle to afford a home. 

“I’m not shying away from it because I think this report makes it pretty clear. And again, if the premier wants to come out and say, Oh, no, I’m just really incompetent. Man, am I incompetent, I had no idea what my minister was up to or any of my staff,” Stiles said. “I talk to my chief of staff multiple times a day and ask for accountability. Here’s the things I’ve asked to be conducted to be done and I would expect that a minister would be asking the same of his chief of staff. I would expect that the premier would be asking those questions. And my goodness, at very least over the last number of months since we’re in the official opposition, I’ve been raising question after question after question after question. Somewhere along the line, you didn’t think to ask what’s going on?”

Stiles demanded Clark resign. 

McCammon of Ontario Headwaters said the same and believes that regardless of party affiliation, proper conduct was not followed and politicians were not working in the best interest of their constituents. 

“This is a government that thinks it’s above the law above. It has made it very clear that Ontarians are not their priority. I wish I could say I would be surprised if the premier doesn’t ask for the minister to step down. But I can’t imagine any minister not recognizing themselves what a disaster this is,” Stiles said.

Many are calling on the federal government to save Ontario’s Greenbelt. 

“I have heard numerous concerns that removal of the land from the Greenbelt could create irreversible harm to wildlife, natural ecosystems and agricultural landscapes both within Rouge National Urban Park, as well as reduce the viability and functionality of the Park’s farmland,” federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told the Pointer in an email statement. “That is why this past Spring I announced a study on the potential effects of development projects adjacent to the Park.” 

“I will let the report and the Auditor General’s conclusions speak for themselves. What I can say is that our Government will continue our work on examining potential impacts on the development on lands around Rouge park in the Greenbelt. This is part of our goal of protecting more nature in Canada.”

Of Lysyk’s 15 recommendations, the majority asked the government to follow proper policy already in place. The one recommendation, number 14, asked for the lands to be reviewed and for a reversal to be considered. This is the only recommendation Ford and Clark refused to accept.  

“My sense is that, if the government does not implement that recommendation, they have no chance in winning the next election,” McCammon said.

“Is there any recourse for the public? No, I mean, the easy answer is in 2026 vote and send a hell of a clear message,” Stiles said. 

For those who do not want the Greenbelt to be destroyed there is some hope in a stipulation within the legislation that states if construction has not begun by 2025, and significant development has not begun, the lands will be returned to the Greenbelt. 

The audit notes that neither the Housing Ministry nor the government have provided details on performance indicators that would have to be met in order for development to continue. 

To fully service these parcels of land for residential use, ironing out all of the kinks in advance, will be a tall order in two years, while the developers push for their billion-dollar payouts.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 11, 2023 at 07:06

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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