Published August 29, 2023

Ontario looks to return land to Greenbelt after owner lists property for sale

By Liam Casey and Tara Deschamps in Toronto

Ontario is looking at returning land slated for housing to the Greenbelt after a company tried to sell two parcels that were removed from the protected area for development, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday.

In a written statement, Ford said the government learned the owner of the two areas in Ajax, Ont., had put up the properties for sale.

"At no point was the intention to sell disclosed to the government’s facilitator during active and ongoing discussions," Ford said.

"This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people. In response, our government is exploring every option available to us, including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt."

The province could return the land to the Greenbelt through regulatory changes, the premier's office said.

Ford said he was issuing a warning to other owners of sites removed from the Greenbelt for housing.

"To the other property owners, you’re on notice: if you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt," Ford said.

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

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

The move sparked anger from critics and several investigations by different authorities. 

The auditor general found earlier this month that the province gave preferential treatment to certain developers when it removed land from the Greenbelt. 

Bonnie Lysyk found that Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, selected most of the sites that were removed for housing, rather than a team of civil servants struck for that purpose.

Lysyk said that developers who had access to Amato at a dinner at a developer conference wound up with 92 per cent of the land. The property owners of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion, she found.

Amato recently resigned from his job.

Ford said last week that he was confident nothing criminal took place in his government's process of removing land from the Greenbelt. He and Clark have also said they didn't know how sites removed from the protected area were selected.

The integrity commissioner is investigating both Clark and Amato while the RCMP have said they are weighing whether they will investigate.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Tuesday that the latest development is more proof that some who are well-connected to Ford are trying to get richer off the Greenbelt land swap.

"It’s a desperate attempt to distract the people of Ontario by trying to hide the tip of the iceberg," Fraser said. 

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said all of the Greenbelt land removed by Ford's government should be returned.

"Ford's Conservatives are changing their tune simply because they got caught," she said. 

"Clearly, this is a government that has one set of rules for those with close connections to their party and a different set for everyone else."

Both leaders called on the housing minister to resign.

The auditor general's report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or the landowner for the land recently listed for sale. A large parcel of the land in question was bought in June 2018. Buena Vista could not immediately be reached for comment.

The auditor general report also lists a numbered company as the owner of those sites. Property records show the area was bought in June 2018 for $15.8 million. The property includes a three-bedroom home built in 1880. 

A family owned the land for more than a century before putting it up for sale, a listing at the time shows.

The family said in that listing that it was 104 acres in the Greenbelt and a "high profile location." The family wrote that they initiated the process of exempting the land from the Greenbelt designation with the province back in 2013. 

"Supports a mix use development. Potential of huge financial reward!" the listing reads.

The property was then put up for sale again in February 2022 for $1 but wasn't sold. 

The auditor general found that 98 per cent of that land is classified as the highest quality soil that produces cash crops. It is also a priority area that maintains Greenbelt connectivity in the Ajax and Whitby, Ont., corridor.

There is another issue that will have to be considered should developers want to move ahead with housing in that area.

The Town of Ajax designated heritage status on a collection of buildings on the site in 2021. No one objected to the status, the town's documents note.

The land is known as the Nicholas Austin Property, the town's heritage bylaw on the property says. The heritage designation is primarily on the property's old buildings.

"The property contains one of the oldest remaining dwellings in the town, a collection of interesting agricultural buildings and a rare example of an early airplane hangar," the bylaw reads.

Many of the buildings are "architecturally significant" and built in the mid-1800s.

"This collection of agricultural outbuildings is surely amongst the most interesting and eclectic in the town," the bylaw reads.

The town controls the fate of the heritage buildings, a spokeswoman said.

"The heritage designation means that anyone that wants to alter any of the heritage attributes of the property must first get approval from the town," Devon Jarvis said in an email. 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

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