Published September 6, 2023

Greenbelt review could see recommendation for more land removals, new minister says

By Allison Jones and Liam Casey in Toronto

A review of Ontario's Greenbelt could recommend more land be added to the protected area, but it could also see more lands removed, the province's new housing minister said Wednesday.

A day after Premier Doug Ford announced a review of all parcels of protected Greenbelt land, as well as the sites the government removed for housing development late last year, Paul Calandra said he has asked the ministry to come up with parameters for the review to start "very soon."

"I'm not going to presuppose what the work of the review is," he said.

"It will be a full, open and accountable process. It will look at the entirety of the Greenbelt. There might be lands that need to be added to the Greenbelt. There may be some lands that are removed, but it will be a fair and open process that will live up to the spirit of the original intent of the Greenbelt."

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

The review announced this week comes after two scathing reports were released last month from the auditor general and the integrity commissioner saying that the housing minister's chief of staff favoured certain developers over others when selecting which lands would come out of the Greenbelt.

The integrity commissioner's report also raised concerns around lobbying practices in Ontario and Attorney General Doug Downey announced Wednesday that when a legislative committee starts reviewing lobbyist rules soon, he will put forward recommendations including "a higher degree of accountability and increased penalties for those who violate the act up to and including jail time."

One of the commissioner's findings was that a man he refers to in the report as Mr. X may have violated lobbying laws. Mr. X was not in the lobbyist registry but had a contract with the owner of a Greenbelt property to be paid $1 million if he successfully got the land removed from the protected area. The Lobbyists Registration Act prohibits lobbying when payment is contingent on the degree of success.

Ford has admitted the process of selecting sites was flawed, and has accepted the auditor's recommendations on procedural changes, but Calandra said Wednesday he stands behind the intent of what the government was trying to do.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said it is "absurd" that the government is not vowing to put the removed parcels back in the Greenbelt and also talking about potentially taking more land out.

"Instead of backtracking, they're more than doubling down, they're tripling down," he said. "They're actually making it worse by saying, 'Hey, let's open the whole thing up for development.'" 

The auditor general found that the owners of the removed sites could see their land value rise by $8.3 billion.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the review is a waste of time and money.

"We don’t need another review to tell us that we need to build housing inside existing municipal areas – not on prime farmland or vital ecological habitats that lessen the impacts of climate change," she wrote in a statement.

Assessing 14 sites the government removed from the Greenbelt will be part of a larger review of all parcels of protected Greenbelt land — mandated every 10 years — and the review of those sites should be done by the end of the year, Calandra said.

Calandra has held the housing portfolio just since Monday, after Steve Clark resigned.

Calandra also said he will be making a number of other changes in housing policy, including revising the use of Ministerial Zoning Orders, which override local zoning bylaws.

In a 2021 report, the auditor general found that Ontario had issued 44 Minister’s Zoning Orders between March 2019 and March 2021, when in the past about one was issued per year. In 2017 and 2018, there were none.

The report said that 17 of the 44 orders were issued to the same seven development groups or companies.

Calandra said he would also enact a "use it or lose it" policy so developers can't sit on permits without building, look at options for increasing penalties for the cancellation of home purchase agreements, and potentially increase the non-resident speculation tax from its current 25 per cent.

The Ford government is trying to build 1.5 million homes by 2031, as recommended by a provincial housing affordability task force, which also concluded that a shortage of land wasn't the problem and Greenbelts must be protected. The province is so far not on track to meet that housing goal.

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.

Even though the ministry had received about 630 Greenbelt site removal requests since 2005, a team of civil servants struck by then-housing chief of staff Ryan Amato were limited to looking at 22 sites, the auditor general found. 

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. 

Amato resigned two weeks after the auditor's report. He 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.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

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