Published September 5, 2023

Greenbelt land swaps to be reviewed, Ontario Premier Doug Ford says

By Allison Jones and Liam Casey in Toronto

Ontario will review the Greenbelt land swaps that two provincial watchdogs have said were rushed and flawed, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday, though he indicated development will continue in the meantime.

Assessing 14 sites the government removed from the Greenbelt for housing development will be part of a larger review of all parcels of protected Greenbelt land, Ford said. Opposition leaders expressed concern the review will cause the premier to open up even more of the Greenbelt. 

Newly appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra – who takes over after Steve Clark resigned his cabinet position Monday – will launch the review, Ford said. It will be a 10-year review mandated by the Greenbelt Act, launched a couple of years early, and will include the land swap sites, he said.

"These sites, these proposals, will have to survive on their own merit," the premier said.

Meanwhile, the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator will continue working with the owners of the 14 parcels of land and developers to "move forward," Ford said.

"Just a message to the 14 owners of this property: If I don't see movement, you're going back into the Greenbelt," he said.

Ford has previously said he expects construction of the 50,000 homes slated to be built on those lands to have started by no later than 2025 and for "significant progress" on approvals to have been made by the end of this year.

The premier did not immediately have information on how long the newly announced review is expected to take, but the last one took two years.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said announcing another review is the wrong move, and called again for the 14 parcels of land to be immediately returned to the Greenbelt.

"This is just going to be a colossal waste of our time and our money in the province of Ontario, when we know very well already what has taken place," she said. 

"In fact, what I'm concerned about is that what I heard the premier just say, was that he's going to look at other developers' plans and reopen other opportunities in the Greenbelt, which is exactly the wrong direction to be taking things."

When asked Tuesday if the government would open up other lands for development as part of the review, Ford said, "We're going to see what the review says ... that will be up to the minister to make that decision."

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he, too, worries the review will lead to more development on the Greenbelt.

"I believe the premier today declared open season on the Greenbelt," he said. 

"He clearly doesn't understand how important it is to protect the farmland that feeds us. Especially at a time when people are struggling to pay grocery bills, we need to protect our local food supply chains."  

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land in 15 sections out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere – though the auditor general found that 2,400 acres of the land added to the Greenbelt were already protected by existing policies.

Ford announced last week he is looking at returning one of those 15 parcels of land to the Greenbelt after he said a company tried to sell two properties in Ajax, Ont.

Tuesday's announcement comes after two scathing reports were released last month from the auditor general and the integrity commissioner. 

Both found that Clark's chief of staff favoured certain developers over others when selecting which lands would come out of the Greenbelt.

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake faulted Clark for not properly overseeing his chief of staff, Ryan Amato.

Wake said Amato was the driving force behind the selection of lands that would come out of the Greenbelt.

He recommended to the legislature that Clark be reprimanded, but it's unclear what that would look like.

Ford told Clark in a mandate letter shortly after the 2022 election to come up with a process to open up the Greenbelt by fall 2022. 

Even though the ministry had received about 630 Greenbelt site removal requests since 2005, a team of civil servants struck by Amato were limited to looking at 22 sites, the auditor general found. All but one of those sites were identified and provided directly by Amato himself.

Of the 15 sites ultimately removed, 14 were brought into the project by Amato, the auditor said. More than 90 per cent of the land was in five sites passed on to him by two developers he met at an industry event, she found. The owners of the 15 sites could see their land value rise by $8.3 billion, the auditor said.

Amato said in his resignation letter he is confident he acted appropriately but that he didn't want to be a distraction to the government's work of getting housing built.

The RCMP is reviewing information to determine whether it should investigate the Greenbelt land swap. Ford has said he is confident nothing criminal took place.

The integrity commissioner had also been looking into Ford's daughter's stag-and-doe event, which was attended by some developers.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2023.

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