Published August 11, 2023

Ontario premier refuses to back away from plans to build on protected Greenbelt

AG report concluded the process to select lands for removal from the Greenbelt was biased and favoured certain developers with ties to the housing minister

By Nairah Amhed in Mississauga

Ontario will not reverse course from plans to build on the protected Greenbelt, Premier Doug Ford said Friday, despite a damning auditor general report and experts saying provincial housing targets can be met by building elsewhere. 

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk concluded in a special report earlier this week that the process to select lands for removal from the Greenbelt was biased and favoured certain developers with ties to the housing minister.

"We need to make sure they build those homes and that's a message to the people, the landowners that have these properties: You don't get shovels in the ground, we don't see progression rapidly, that land's going back in the Greenbelt," he said at a news conference about additional provincial funding for supportive housing in Mississauga, Ont.

Lysyk found a few prominent developers who already owned land in the protected Greenbelt had received preferential treatment.

"No one had preferential treatment," Ford said.

Last year, the Ford government opened up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to development while adding about 9,400 acres elsewhere as part of its bid to build 1.5 million homes across the province.

Ford wants to see 50,000 homes built on the former Greenbelt lands.

Local planners in the three regions where the land was removed, along with the province's housing task force, say the land is not needed to meet housing construction targets, Lysyk noted in her report.

Ford claimed that was based on outdated information, referring to the task force's report from February 2022.

Ford admitted that the process of selecting which lands would be removed from the Greenbelt for development was flawed and pledged that his government would act on 14 of Lysyk's 15 recommendations.

The recommendation that his government would disregard is Lysyk's call to re-evaluate the entire process of changing the Greenbelt's boundaries. 

Lysyk found that 83 per cent of the land removed is among the highest quality farmland in the province. About 1,000 acres of the removed land are wetlands or woodlands.

She found that when specific properties tied to prominent developers did not meet the environmental criteria to build on those lands, the criteria was dropped, rather than look for other parcels of land.

The Integrity Commissioner of Ontario is reviewing a request from Ford to look into Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato.

Lysyk found that developers who had access to Amato at a housing conference dinner last September wound up with 92 per cent of the land that was removed from the Greenbelt. 

She found several examples where it appears political public service staff gave preferential treatment to lobbyists.

"During the course of our audit, we found situations where lobbyists working for developers emailed political staff to suggest amendments to legislation," Lysyk wrote in her report.

"In these cases, political staff copied and pasted the wording of the lobbyists’ proposed amendments into a new document, which they then forwarded on to deputy ministers for inclusion in legislative packages. Senior non-political public servants, who were directed by political staff to carry the proposal forward, appeared unaware that the proposed amendments had originated from a lobbyist."

In response, Clark said Friday "there's a big difference between asking for information and disclosing government policy" before it is announced. 

Clark deflected questions about how developers had such easy access to his chief of staff, saying they acknowledge "that we moved too fast and there were severe flaws in the process."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2023.

--With files from Liam Casey in Toronto

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