Greenbelt legislation for Pickering, GTA “falls short,” say environmental groups

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Published October 18, 2023 at 10:12 am

Greenbelt

It isn’t often that governments introduce legislation that protects its citizens from its own corruption, but that’s what the Doug Ford government did Monday in approving the Greenbelt Statute Amendment Act to return environmental protection to the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) and the rest of the Greenbelt.

The legislation essentially prevents future governments from doing what Ford and his party did last fall when protection was removed from the Greenbelt and the lands opened up for development, with a select few developers poised to benefit from instant land value increases of more than $8 billion.

But Environmental Defence, which has been fighting the Greenbelt swap since the beginning, says the legislation is not enough.

“We are concerned that this bill falls short of what will be required to make good on the Premier’s promise never to remove land from the Greenbelt in future, or to restore the public – and investor – certainty that Greenbelt protection is permanent,” said Ontario Environment Program Manager Phil Pothen. “It is vital to remember that restoring and permanently protecting the Greenbelt itself will be only a first step as the attempt to remove lands from the Greenbelt was part of a larger corrupt and counterproductive push for sprawl that would worsen Ontario’s housing shortage.”

Newly minted Housing Minister Paul Callandra – who took over the portfolio after his predecessor, Steve Clark, resigned in the fallout from the Greenbelt scandal – took point in introducing the new legislation (and in a testy news conference that followed) and said he hoped the Bill, despite an ongoing RCMP investigation into any possible illegalities, would close a “difficult chapter” for the government.

“We made a mistake,” Calandra said after tabling the bill. “I’m acknowledging that mistake.”

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Callandra. CP photo by Christopher Katsarov

The RCMP announced last week that its “sensitive and international investigations unit” had started a formal investigation. The unit performs political investigations that examine elected officials on allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust.

Ford’s office said the government would co-operate with the investigation and the Premier has previously said he is confident nothing criminal took place.

The government’s new bill also contains an indemnity clause, protecting staff from liability from angry developers who are now dealing with broken backroom deals, prompting a heated exchange between Callandra and reporters Monday.

“This protects the government from outside claims, yes,” Callandra said in response to repeated questions about protection from future lawsuits.

Callandra wouldn’t. however, directly comment on questions regarding any official reprimands to former Housing Minister Clark except to say they would follow the recommendations of the Integrity Commissioner.

On October 25 – the day after the provincial election – the government stripped all protections from the DRAP, which makes up 65 per cent of the lands involved in the Greenbelt and more than three-quarters of its value. Just to make sure there would be no confusion as to their intentions, the Conservatives also revoked a second layer of defence against development, the Central Pickering Development Plan, giving a select group of developers – Sylvio De Gasperis and his TACC Group were the main beneficiary – instant access to 4,700 acres of prime mostly Class 1 farmland (with some rare Carolina habitat as well) and increasing their initial $8.3 million investment into property valued at more than $6 billion.

The next month the government removed protection from development from the other 2,700 acres in the Greenbelt swap, sparking 11 months of outrage, investigations from the Attorney General, the Integrity Commissioner and the RCMP, and finally, a reversal of the entire thing.

“It was a process that could not be supported,” Callandra said in a classic political understatement.

Former Pickering Councillor Bonnie Littley at a rally to save the Greenbelt

Bonnie Littley, a former Pickering Councillor and the co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition, was a little more direct, calling it a “brazen scheme to capture public wealth for the service of private greed.

Pothen and Environmental Defence agreed.

“We are relieved to see that this bill enshrines the Greenbelt’s boundaries in the Greenbelt Act itself, and includes provisions that would reverse the $8.28 billion dollar giveaway of development rights in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural preserve and prevent land speculators from suing the government for undeserved ‘compensation,’” noted Pothen, who said the legislation is only “a modest first step on the long path that leads out of the government’s sprawl and land speculation scandal.”

The auditor general found that more than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was in five sites passed on to the then-housing minister chief of staff Ryan Amato by two developers he met at an industry event.

Amato became the first fall guy in the scandal when he resigned in late August.

The original Greenbelt Act mandates a review every 10 years and Calandra said the next one will be conducted by “impartial, nonpartisan experts in conservation, agriculture and environmentalism, and will include engagement with Indigenous communities and municipalities.”

But Pothen is not convinced of Callandra’s sincerity. “Given Minister Calandra’s ambiguous comments in the legislature, there is cause for concern the 10-year annual review process will be manipulated to create a pretext for future attempts to remove Greenbelt land,” he said. “In order to remedy this omission and restore damaged public confidence that Greenbelt protection is permanent, this bill must be amended to limit future reviews of Greenbelt boundaries to consider only expansions of the Greenbelt.”

The Greenbelt was created in 2005 by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty (with all party support) and had to survive an end-around attempt by then Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan after he released a series of easements, forcing the Liberals to invoke a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) to ensure protection of the lands.

Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (in red) in Pickering

Those controversial MZOs have been used quite frequently by the current Conservative government, especially in this term of office.

Pothen called the Greenbelt swap only part of a “corrupt and counterproductive push for sprawl” and demanded the government reverse other environmentally damaging initiatives, such as the controversial Highway 413, the forced urban expansion of several communities around the GTA, the proliferation of MZOs and the weakening of authority of local Conservation Authorities.

“Just as with the Greenbelt removals, all of these provincial actions involve not just sacrificing the environment, but also diverting scarce construction capacity and public resources away from essential low-cost housing in existing neighborhoods to subsidize the environmentally destructive sprawl schemes of the government’s friends.”

“The scandal won’t be over until Highway 413 and all the government’s other sprawl initiatives have been abandoned and reversed.”

With files from Canadian Press

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