Pickering Mayor calls out Province for “subsidizing private interests” in Greenbelt land deals


Published August 11, 2023 at 3:27 pm

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe, who said last year he supported opening the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve for development, said the Auditor General’s bombshell report that alleges preferential treatment to certain developers by the provincial government in a controversial Greenbelt land swap raises “a number of concerns.”

Ashe also had harsh words about Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s declaration in her report that the government favoured certain developers and landowners who stand to make up to $8.3 billion in profits over the land swap.

“Neither the City nor its taxpayers should subsidize private interests,” he said.

The bulk of the profits – an estimated $6 billion – is headed to landowners in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a 4,700-acre formerly development-free buffer next to the Rouge Valley Urban Park that was dissolved by the Province to make the land swap happen.

Silvio de Gasperis of the TACC Group of companies, who has been buying up land in the area since 2003 and has been a frequent contributor to Premier Doug Ford’s political campaigns, is by far the biggest landholder in the agricultural preserve, which was set aside for protection in 1999 and formally created in 2005.

Graph courtesy of CBC

Ashe said in a statement the Auditor General’s Report “underscored the need” for the consideration of agricultural, environmental, and financial impacts related to these development decisions. “We need a clear, evidence-informed process that prioritizes these factors. We must ensure the necessary infrastructure, parks, and facilities are in place to support a high quality of life for both existing and new residents, and that all of the key stakeholders and agencies, as well as First Nations people, are consulted by the Province during this process.”

“With this decision being imposed on us, we will vigorously fight for our city’s best interests.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, while admitting the land swap process was flawed, insisted “no one had preferential treatment” and stuck by his message on the need to swap out Greenbelt lands for development during an announcement in Mississauga today.

Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark were in Streetsville for a supportive housing announcement but the focus of the press conference returned to Lysyk’s special report on the government’s decision in 2022 to remove 7,400 acres of environmentally protected Greenbelt land for development.

Ford and Clark didn’t stray from the message that the land swap is needed to provide housing and said he won’t reverse the decision to remove the Greenbelt lands. But he added a warning to the landowners:

“We need to build those homes, that is a message to the landowners that have these properties, you don’t get shovels in the ground, we don’t see progression, rapidly, that land is going back to the Greenbelt,” he said.

While the NDP and Liberals have called for Clark to resign, there are no plans for anyone to quit yet over the controversy.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe

Ford took responsibility for the decisions – “As premier, the buck stops with me” – but has asked the Ontario Integrity Commissioner to investigate the way Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato, who proposed 14 of the 15 sites that were removed from the Greenbelt, managed the deal.

Ashe, a long-time proponent of building houses in the greenbelt and on the agricultural preserve, said what is important now is Pickering taking back some control of the future of those lands.

“Above all, we demand that Pickering be made whole and that any future development of these lands pays for itself,” he said. “Bold action is needed to get the issues of housing affordability and attainability under control, but it has to be done the right way.”

“If the Province proceeds with this development, the City of Pickering’s needs and concerns must be addressed in a meaningful and transparent manner.”

Lysyk’s report also notes there is no evidence that removing land from the Greenbelt was needed to meet the government’s housing goals, a finding also made by the provincial government’s own housing affordability task force and municipal planners in several areas impacted by the deal, including Durham Region.

Stop Sprawl Durham and other supporters of the agriculture preserve will be rallying Sunday at Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy’s office to send a message to the provincial government that the Greenbelt lands need to be returned to their former protected status.

Former Pickering Councillor and co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition Bonnie Littley (right) at a rally last November

With files from Karen Longwell


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