A battle is brewing over the PC government’s plan to destroy the Greenbelt for development

 By Rachel Morgan

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When the PC government threatened to use the Notwithstanding Clause to deny CUPE members the right to bargain for their own employment contracts, a movement rolled across the province and forced Doug Ford to back down.

The same passion sparked during the bargaining saga has transitioned to a grassroots citizen effort coalescing around the Greenbelt, following the PC government’s decision to remove 7,400 acres from the supposedly protected ecosystem that arcs above the GTHA.

“People are coming to these rallies and saying to me, `I am not being heard, my voice doesn’t even matter’,” said Margaret Prophet, Executive Director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.

With this week’s passage of Bill 23, the PC plan to build 1.5 million homes in just eight years, paving the way for the destruction of farmland and critical greenspaces, citizens are raising their voice again in hopes of protecting the Greenbelt.

Municipalities across the Greenbelt are currently lining up to fight Bill 23, the PC housing plan that triggers the supposed need to build 1.5 million new homes. Richmond Hill just joined dozens of other cities, towns and regions vowing to take Ford on.

The City of Mississauga even has a new page on its website.

It states: “Mississauga is ready to work with the Province and developers to get housing built, but not at the expense of parks, affordable housing, the environment, heritage, and you, the taxpayer. Take Action: Tell your local MPP that you don’t want your tax dollars funding developer profits.”

Residents can click on a button to email their MPP and complain about what the PCs are doing to “your quality of life.”

On November 4, Ford broke his promise to never touch the Greenbelt, announcing that 7,400 acres would be razed for 50,000 of the 1.5 million homes that he has promised to build under Bill 23.

Consultation on this proposed plan is currently open with the Environment Registry Office and closes at the end of day tomorrow (December 4).

Experts in his own government, and many professional planners and land use researchers have shown through extensive analysis that additional land beyond existing urban boundaries across Southern Ontario is not needed to accommodate growth over the next twenty to thirty years.

Provincial legislation called the Places to Grow Act was passed in 2005, based on this extensive research. The legislation allows municipal and regional governments to plan their future growth in a more dense built form, supporting transit, complete walkable communities and budgets that can be managed because infrastructure costs are far lower when services are provided in a much smaller area.

The result is a much smaller carbon footprint as well, allowing municipalities, regions, the province and the country to reach ambitious emissions reductions targets.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) which represents more than 1,500 companies in the development space, has lobbied aggressively against the Places to Grow Act since it was passed. Subdivision builders know that planning for dense, compact communities using the existing urban boundary strands tens of thousands of acres of land developers have already bought up across Southern Ontario, including in the Greenbelt.

These properties, which represent billions of dollars in profits, have to be approved for subdivisions, often under old sprawl-inducing planning policies, otherwise the developers who speculated on future land-use would see their investments dwindle.

As part of its lobbying effort against the Places to Grow Act, BILD stated in a 2018 document that “the conditions introduced by the 2006 Growth Plan policies (and those of its direct descendant, 2017 Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2017) have distorted land use and planning in the GTHA. This in turn has impacted the housing market and has contributed to the inflation of housing values.”

Using this justification, the PCs, after gaining power in 2018, immediately adopted BILD’s policy recommendations, ignoring the Places to Grow Act. Its wording around Bill 23 now mirrors the language used by BILD.

“As Ontario’s population has grown, housing construction has not kept pace,” the PCs wrote in a recent press release. “Our housing stock has to both catch up and keep up with population growth projections. If this does not happen, prices will continue to rise and it will become even more challenging to find a place to live.”

Earlier this year, the government’s Housing Affordability Task Force published a report urging the PCs to assess their land use policy prior to expanding urban boundaries into more greenspace to accommodate Bill 23.

The PCs have ignored municipalities such as Hamilton and Halton Region, which chose not to expand their urban boundaries as part of the provincially imposed Municipal Comprehensive Review of land use policies. The provincial government has informed municipalities, under its suite of legislated housing reforms (some have yet to be passed) that urban boundaries will be expanded for subdivisions, even if local plans called for compact, dense growth. So local governments in Halton, Peel, Hamilton and across Ontario are now powerless when deciding how best to use land within their own borders for future growth.

If Ford and the developers who have aggressively lobbied the PCs want urban boundaries expanded to accommodate subdivisions, there is nothing municipalities can do.

“A shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem,” the PC government’s own task force report reads. “Land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped land outside greenbelts.”

Despite the recommendations from its own task force, the Ford government pushed ahead with its plan to open up more land for the development, and to begin carving up the Greenbelt, leading some opposition party members and concerned citizens to question the ties between the PCs and prominent Ontario developers.

In September, Michael Rice, an Ontario developer, committed $80 million for two parcels of land that could not be used for any development, as reported by media outlets including The Narwhal, the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. The 700 acres his company purchased were entirely within the confines of the Greenbelt and if the PC government removes 15 areas from the Greenbelt for development, as it has proposed, the properties Rice purchased (which are part of the land identified for home construction) could be worth ten times the $80 million he paid for them. The Globe and Mail also reported Rice received a loan at a 21 percent interest rate to purchase the property, raising questions about why the bank and the company would enter into such an agreement, unless they were assured that a significant profit was all but guaranteed.

Rice’s land is just one example of a developer who will serve to benefit from changes to the Greenbelt policy. It has been widely reported over the past decade that developers have been assembling land in parts of the so-called protected Greenbelt. Some bought up land more than 15 years ago, and have been lobbying to get it developed since.

Before he was first elected in 2018, Ford was caught on camera privately promising developers, including those who owned land in the Greenbelt, that he would open up large swaths of it, if they helped him secure the premier’s seat. After the leaked video prompted widespread backlash, Ford made a promise to leave the Greenbelt alone.

“The people have spoken. I’m going to listen to them, they don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt, we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” he said in May 2018.

In  May 2021, TACC Developments, owned by the prominent developer Silvio De Gasperis, paid $50 million for 100 acres of farmland in Vaughan. The majority of the land purchased is contained within the Greenbelt.

Companies connected to the De Gasperis family own 1,775 acres within the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a portion of the Greenbelt located in Durham Region.

The NDP estimates the De Gasperis family paid approximately $24,000 per acre. Based on recent land sales for development use, the NDP values the land at a minimum of $383,000 per acre. The Opposition Party estimates the De Gasperis family could make up to two-thirds of a billion dollars if the PC plan to open up the Greenbelt for housing construction is approved.

“This government has taken a hatchet to farmland over the past few weeks, removing thousands of acres from the Greenbelt and destroying existing urban boundaries. Frankly it is no surprise to find out that these changes will benefit powerful landowners, like Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice, who have donor and political ties to the Ontario PC party,” NDP MPP for Davenport, Marit Stiles, said at Queen’s Park Tuesday.

She pleaded for transparency from the government and questioned how the particular parcels of Greenbelt land were chosen for development. After two attempts, she did not receive a direct answer from Housing Minister Steven Clark; he did not deny the allegation that the 7,400 acres selected by the PCs inside the Greenbelt for development, happen to match where builders already assembled land for construction.

Despite not answering Stiles or the media for two weeks on whether or not developers were given insider information about the lands that would be opened up, Ford has now said he “can confirm” developers were not given a heads up. Critics have said it’s possible the PCs took their direction from developers who speculated where to assemble land years ago, then lobbied the government to select those parcels for future construction.

Stiles is not backing down. Last Thursday, the MPP formally requested a value-for-money audit from the Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk to investigate the wealth increase of property owners if their land were to be removed from the Greenbelt for housing. She also wants an investigation into the economic and environmental impacts on the agricultural and natural ecological systems that would be destroyed.

“The removal of protections from these lands would instantly shift immense wealth onto the landowners, without requiring even a single home to be built,” Stiles wrote. “The difference in land values between protected farmland and unprotected developable land can be orders of magnitude.”

The government’s Greenbelt plan also has the attention of Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, MPP for Guelph. On Monday, he filed a complaint with the Integrity Commissioner asking for an investigation into whether Premier Ford and Minister Clark breached sections 2 and/or 3 of the Members Integrity Act, or any other parliamentary convention, when deciding to open up Greenbelt lands for development. Sections 2 and 3 of the Members Integrity Act require members of government to represent their constituents and perform their duties in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of each member.

Schreiner also requested the Integrity Commissioner look into whether any unregistered lobbyist activities took place by or on behalf of those who will benefit from the opening of the Greenbelt lands.

“The people of Ontario are rightfully suspicious of the timing of the sale of certain protected Greenbelt lands that will now be open for development, and the ties these land speculators have to the PC party,” Schreiner wrote in a press release for the Green Party of Ontario. “I appreciate these are serious allegations, and I didn’t file this complaint proudly or without due consideration, but at the request of Ontarians who deserve transparency and to have the utmost trust and respect for their elected officials.

Unfortunately right now people feel that their government has let them down and threatened the land they love for the benefit of private interests.”

According to a press release from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH), when considering the lands to be removed from the Greenbelt, the decision was based on a number of criteria, including:

In an email to The Pointer, the MMAH was adamant that “significant progress” must be achieved on approved developments by 2023 and construction on new homes must begin by 2025 otherwise the land will be returned to the Greenbelt.

With much of the proposed land already in the hands of developers lobbying to rush forward with construction, it is unlikely that much, if any, land will be returned to the Greenbelt.

Prophet, of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, made reference to former development applications that tried to take up protected land within the Greenbelt. In total, there have been 17 boundary adjustments to the Greenbelt, but Prophet says there were over 100 applications that would have taken up thousands of acres of Greenbelt land.

“We felt then as we do now that it’s a precedent,” she said.

“You start taking out a chunk in the middle and a chunk here. Then the next government or the government after that goes, well, we’ve done it before, and all of a sudden, the Greenbelt is rendered meaningless.”

Another concern that has been raised is the government’s proposed exchange of lands in the Greenbelt for lands that would be given protection elsewhere. Minister Clark was adamant that 9,400 acres of land would be added to the Greenbelt, making it 2,000 acres larger.

Environmental activists and conservation authorities have said there is no indication such land will be as ecologically valuable and that, regardless, removing critical ecosystem land is not the answer.

“I think if anything,  1/8the Greenbelt 3/8 should be doubled, tripled in size over those areas that we know that we need to survive going forward and find places for housing that are already zoned for housing,” Prophet said. “So I’m never going to be against adding lands to the Greenbelt. But to do it in a way where you take lands out and put them somewhere else, as if that’s going to be an equivalent, is disingenuous.”

The Greenbelt was created in 2005 under Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in response to a residential development industry that was gobbling up forests, wetlands and farmlands at an alarming rate.

The Greenbelt Act was instituted to protect these sensitive ecosystems.

“Lands were put into the Greenbelt plan because of environmental sensitivity, and because of protection for agriculture in general.

We don’t support removing land under the Greenbelt,” said Leilani Lee Yates, Director of watershed Management at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA).

No one is saying that additional lands shouldn’t be added to the Greenbelt; however, some are questioning why a specific parcel of land in Erin was identified for Greenbelt expansion, covering part of the Paris Galt Moraine. It was chosen over other valuable areas that have been suggested by municipalities and environmental groups in the past.

At a council meeting last week, the Town of Erin discussed the possible addition of the subject lands to the Greenbelt as it falls within the municipality’s jurisdiction. Jack Krubnik, director of planning, said the Paris Galt Moraine is already protected at the Town and County level, so the proposed inclusion into the Greenbelt would be unnecessary.

The entirety of the Paris Galt Moraine spans over 40,000 acres between Orangeville and Guelph and down into Haldimand County. It is questionable whether protecting such a small portion of a greater natural system will have many ecological benefits.

“If the province does intend to move forward with a designation such as they are proposing, I would recommend that they have a closer look at the Greenbelt expansion into Erin so that it better aligns with the identified moraines, and aligns better with the provincial mapping for the Paris Galt Moraine,” Krubnik said.

“Presently, it does not align well with it.”

Prophet said she remains hopeful that citizens standing up for the Greenbelt will be able to have an impact before the legislation is voted on. She said it is promising that residents are recognizing this isn’t just about 7,400 acres of land, it’s about saving the entire Greenbelt.

She pointed to the example of the 413 highway which would run just south of the Greenbelt through Caledon. When surfaces are paved over to build new highways, or in the case of the Bill 23 legislation, sprawling subdivisions, there are less permeable areas left to absorb rainfall and snowmelt.

“So now you’ve got fewer impervious systems, and the wetland that was doing its job has only half of its function,” she said.

“So whatever it used to do, it’s only 50 percent able to do and half the other half is now under pavement.”

It’s the same for forests and tree cover. Forests need to be a certain size in order to sequester carbon effectively. Removing trees from one area and adding them in another might amount to the same number of trees without having the same effect.

Other cascading impacts from development will eventually cause a domino effect across the Greenbelt as one subdivision’s devastation of the surrounding area leads to justification to also use the adjacent destroyed Greenbelt lands for future development. It’s a ploy builders have used across North America to turn farmland and greenspaces into endless suburban sprawl.

Prophet has hope the momentum that has been picking up pace by citizens and activists will have an impact.

There is also hope Ottawa could step in if the provincial government passes its proposed changes to the Greenbelt Act and pushes ahead with its submission to the Environmental Registry to use 7,400 acres of currently protected land for future subdivisions.

The federal government put out a warning in October that it would no longer tolerate the destruction of habitats containing endangered species.

In November 2021, Parliament in Ottawa put forward an emergency directive to slow the extension of a street in Longueuil, Quebec on Montreal’s South Shore to protect the endangered chorus frog.

In an interview with the Canadian Press in the lead up to COP 15 in Montreal, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault warned that interventions such as that which occurred in Longueuil, will take place until the message is clear.

“The things that we’re messing with are about safety,” Prophet said. “It’s about public health. It’s about climate. It’s about future health. It’s about water protection. And it seems so funny that having the history of Walkerton still in the air, that we haven’t learned our lesson, that cutting red tape, and playing with systems that protect our water, our property, and our communities is something that can just be done without any repercussions.

“We’ve learned a hard lesson and it looks like this government’s willing to learn another hard lesson.”

  Rachel Morgan is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter or THE POINTER. The  LJI  program is federally funded.

 

 

 

 

 

Add Your Voice

Is there more to this story? We'd like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Contribute your voice on our contribute page.