Pickering agriculture preserve increased $6 billion in value thanks to Ontario Green Belt swap: AG Report


Published August 11, 2023 at 4:59 pm


In her blistering report on the Ontario government’s Green Belt swap, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the Pickering Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) was by far the most profitable of the 15 parcels developers snatched up before the swap was public knowledge.

Lyksyk released her report on Aug. 9 and found the Ontario government, “failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial risks and impacts, proceeded with little input from experts or affected parties, and favoured certain developers/landowners,” when they opened up Green Belt lands for development last year.

All in all the Ontario government received requests from several developers to open up 15 parcels of Green Belt land, which had been protected since the belt’s 2005 inception. The belt’s goal was to keep these lands protected as green space and farmland in perpetuity.

Additionally, a section of the Green Belt, the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) on the western edge of Pickering had its own set of protections meant to insure the area always remained farmland. These lands had been appropriated in the 1970’s for the proposed Pickering Airport, but it was never built. As a result, Durham Region and Pickering sold the land back to the original owners at agricultural rates as long as the land was only used for farming or conservation. The lands have changed hands since, but those protections were still required.

Despite several assurances from Premier Doug Ford over the years that his government would not touch the Green Belt, he and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced sweeping changes to its borders last fall. The day afterward they also repealed the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act which established the extra protections for the DRAP.

These policy changes removed protections from about 7,400 acres of land which were swapped with land in the Paris Gault Morraine. Ford and Clark have often claimed this was the best and only way to address the housing shortage crisis. However, Lyksyk’s report found there is more than enough available land to meet housing needs without cutting into the Green Belt. Lyksyk pointed out the province’s own Housing Task Force had found this during earlier investigations.

At the urging of new NDP leader Marit Styles, Lyksyk investigated the land swap over the last few months. She found it “cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” for a variety of reasons.

Chiefly among them, she found the government had favoured certain developers who had requested the government remove 92 per cent of the selected lands. The DRAP is the largest parcel of land in the entire swap. It amounts to around 58 per cent of the total area removed in all 15 parcels at 4,300 acres of the 7,400 total.

Ford has publically disagreed with this assessment saying no developers had been favoured. Nearly all the removed parcels were recommended by Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato. Ford has called for an integrity commissioner investigation into Amato.

These lands also hold the lion’s share of the parcel’s financial value. Lyksyk concluded the territory exiting the Green Belt increased in value by around $8.3 billion. Some $6.6 billion of that value is in the DRAP lands. These numbers are based on the land value in 2016. The increase in value would be much more from then to 2023. Lyksyk noted the value may be up to four times more.

“The Province, and by extension the public, gave up potentially billions of dollars in opportunity costs that had been previously forfeited in the name of supporting local agricultureand protecting the environment. Those profits will now flow to the DRAP lands’ private owners and developers, with no immediate offsetting compensation to the public,” Lyksyk wrote.

“We found neither the Housing Ministry nor the government took steps to consider the full extent of the potential financial gain for property owners, how the Province could share in this gain, or how this change in land value would affect housing prices and progress toward the Province’s housing target,” she continued.

Starting just before the Green Belt was established developer Silvio De Gasparis, through his company TACC Development, started buying up the lands in the DRAP at the cheaper agricultural rates with the goal of building houses. However, he was blocked when the Dalton MacGuinty governement enacted the DRAP protections. Roughly 65 per cent of the DRAP land were baought up between 2000 and 2005.

De Gasperis has lobbied for the protection’s removal ever since, taking Ontario to court over the lands where he ultimately failed. He has continued to advocate for the land’s removal. According to Lyksyk’s report Amato recieved an information from two prominent developers at a Building Industry and Land Development Association’s (BILD) Chair’s Dinner on September 14,2022. The information pertained to the removal of two land sites from the Greenbelt including the DRAP.

Lyksyk does not name these developers in her report, but noted Amato sat at that same table as one of the pair. Amato and De Gasparis co-operated with Lyksyk’s investigation, though De Gasparis had earlier tried to block a summons to be interviewed.

Additionally, Lyksyk stressed that the DRAP land are known to be a particular challenge to prepare and service to make ready for development to go in. Her report found getting the area ready could take 25 years and unknown, but high municipal infrastructure spending for “major infrastructure upgrades, including expansion of water and sewage treatment plants, and road and
transit networks.”

The report also found that DRAP development would see the worst agricultural impact of any of the removed lands. The DRAP is the province’s only agricultural preserve and alone contributes $14.7 million to Ontario’s gross domestic product. However, beyond that of all the land removed from the Green Belt, 76 per cent was being used for agriculture last year.

“Protecting high-quality agricultural land, regardless of current agricultural production, preserves valuable soil resources, helps to meet future agricultural needs and promotes long-term food security,” Lyksyk said, “In addition, developing surrounding farmland may impact the productivity or future potential of highquality agricultural land.”

indurham's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising