“We won!” say activists, who warn the battle to return Pickering’s DRAP to the Greenbelt is not over

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Published September 22, 2023 at 12:13 pm

Ontario Premier with then-Housing Minister Steve Clark in August

“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise and for that I’m very, very sorry.”

The response to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s sudden reversal on the Greenbelt swap – a decision that has already cost him three cabinet ministers and various other trusted bureaucrats – and his subsequent mea culpa has been swift and almost universally unsympathetic, with many wondering what else might be in the Premier’s closet.

Politicians and activists alike – from Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie – “Doug Ford isn’t sorry he did it, he’s sorry he got caught” to Mike Borie, the co-founder of Environmental Action Now – “Doug Ford and the Ontario PC government need to be held accountable for these actions” – have taken Ford to task over the Greenbelt fiasco, which has dominated the news over the past month.

Apologies are not enough, they add, only a full public enquiry – beyond what has already occurred with the reports from the Auditor General and the Ontario Integrity Commissioner – will do.

“The residents of Ontario deserve answers to many questions.  Ford has proven that his word cannot be trusted including his words today,” Borie said, adding that he believes Bill 23 needs to be fully repealed, the use of Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) needs to be revisited and Strong Mayors powers also need to be sent back to the drawing board. “How much has this cost the residents of Ontario?”

Borie also wants answers from the Region of Durham and “especially” from Pickering Council for their lack of action on the developing the Greenbelt.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe, who has already announced his plan to use the aforementioned Strong Mayor Powers during upcoming budget talks, also released a statement on Ford’s reversal and apology but limited his criticism to the still pressing need for more housing – the rationale that got Ford into trouble in the first place.

“It’s essential to acknowledge that we are still facing a nationwide housing crisis, which is particularly acute here in the Greater Toronto Area.  And as such, Pickering remains committed to addressing these challenges by providing a broad and diverse array of housing choices while ensuring development occurs in a responsible, systematic, and sustainable manner,” Ashe said.

 

Premier Doug Ford

Ashe, who is on record saying he supported building on the Greenbelt, acknowledged the reversal affects lands in Pickering’s Cherrywood neighbourhood but didn’t mention the fact that those lands are in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP), which contains two-third of the 7,400 acres of Greenbelt lands and more than three-quarters of the $8 billion-plus in land value that went to a few select developers when the swap was announced last November.

“The City of Pickering will abide by the wishes of the Provincial Government … and we respect the direction it has chosen to take in this matter,” he said, declaring that intensification will continue in the city’s downtown and development will go on in the growing community of Seaton – just to the east of the DRAP.

Other mayors in the GTA, from Crombie in Mississauga to Burlington’s Marianne Meed Ward and Hamilton’s Andrea Horwath, have been more decisive in condemning Ford and the entire Greenbelt swap process.

“Our city has been very clear in its opposition to this plan; how it was done and what it means for our agriculture and environmentally sensitive lands,” Horwath said, while thanking the community for telling Ford that Greenbelt development was
not necessary or responsible.”

Ford finally agreed on that last point after a month of media stories, cabinet minister resignations and damning reports, calling it a “mistake” to open the Greenbelt. “It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast. This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives. As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made and won’t make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future.”

Stop Sprawl Durham, which has been fighting the land swap since the beginning, said Ford made a “grave mistake” in trying to open up the lands for development.

“He disregarded how much Ontarians care about our natural areas, which are key to mitigating the climate, biodiversity, and affordability crises. We hope he has learned that voters really don’t like it when politicians don’t keep their promises. Especially when it comes to matters of such vital importance to our health and that of future generations,” said the group’s co-chair, Abdullah Mir, who cautioned that activists have to remain vigilant to ensure Ford will keep his latest promise.

“While we may have won this round, the ongoing story is the influence of private interests over good governance and sound planning decisions,” he added. “This movement does not stop with Premier Ford’s reversal of the Greenbelt cuts.”

“Let this be a shining example of the power of civic action and active participation in your community.”

Those sentiments were also shared by Bonnie Littley, the co-founder of Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition and a former Pickering councillor – “Woooooohoooooo!
Greenbelt lands returned” and the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation – “Finally a win for the “good guys!” This is why it is important to speak up!”

There are still some unanswered questions from Ford’s press conference, especially after he was asked by reporters if there will be any compensation awarded to developers for their sudden loss in property value and he cryptically answered that new Housing Minister Paul Callandra “is working through those details.”

Callandra also said earlier this week that a review of the process might mean more lands would be added to the developable land portfolio, but Ford said Thursday that won’t happen now.

The likely scenario is the provincial government will have to buy the swapped lands back from developers like Silvio De Gasperis of the TACC Group, who stood to gain more in $6 billion in increased land value if he were able to develop on lands now reverted back to the agriculture preserve in Pickering.

Borie, however, said the battle over those lands is not yet over.

“Silvio De Gasperis and other developers will not sit back and take a financial loss without a fight.”

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