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1,200 homes on prime farmland: What’s known about the plan to develop the Greenbelt in Pickering, Ont.

Here's what you need to know about that site, from its environmental importance, to what developers are planning to build there, where those plans stand, to the potential pushback from the City of Pickering and federal government.

Developer says 'various housing types' part of 1st phase of development on Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve

An aerial view of a small hamlet and surrounding green fields.

The battle over the future of the largest chunk of land the province removed from the protected Greenbelt in December has intensified in the last week, ever since Ontario's auditor general revealed how a small group of developers influenced the process.

As many as 30,000 housing units could be built on the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) in north Pickering in the coming years, according to a city staff report from May 2023, on farmland that was supposed to be forever protected.

The homes would make up the bulk of the 50,000 units Doug Ford's government hopes to produce through its changes to the Greenbelt — a vast area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough that's meant to be permanently off-limits to development.

But community groups and opposition politicians continue to fight back against the plan to build housing there.

Here's what you need to know about the preserve, from its environmental importance, to what developers are planning to build, where those plans stand, and the ongoing pushback from the public, the City of Pickering and federal government.

History of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve

The DRAP contains around 1,900 hectares of prime agricultural land and natural features in northwest Pickering, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The provincial government expropriated much of it from landowners in the 1970s ahead of construction of a planned federal airport nearby. When the airport didn't pan out by the late 1990s, the government began selling the land back to the original landowners and tenant farmers at a discount because agricultural easements placed on the land designated it for farming uses only in perpetuity.

Still, developers — including companies linked to Silvio De Gasperis of Tacc Developments — began buying up parcels and working with the City of Pickering to obtain permission to build housing.

After the McGuinty government included the preserve in the Greenbelt in February 2005, the city tried to cancel some of the easements. In response, the province enshrined the agricultural status of the land by passing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act — a law the Ford government repealed in December.

De Gasperis then launched a public campaign to embarrass McGuinty and a court battle that ultimately failed but cost him millions of dollars in legal costs.

A CBC Toronto analysis of property and corporate records in November 2022 identified 28 properties in the DRAP, covering a total of 718 hectares, owned by companies listing brothers Silvio, Carlo and Michael De Gasperis as directors. Twenty-four of those properties were purchased in 2003 and 2004, two in 2016 and two in 2020, for a total of $21.5 million.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the DRAP was chosen for removal from the Greenbelt after the "developer for the DRAP site" provided Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff with an information package about it at a building industry dinner in September 2022.

In June 2023, companies linked to De Gasperis purchased seven additional properties in the area and bought out the co-owners of an eighth property. Those purchases, which were first reported by the Toronto Star, add another 209 hectares to the brothers' property holdings.

Citing estimates from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation in 2016, Lysyk indicated in her report last week that the Greenbelt boundary changes would increase the value of land in the DRAP by at least $6.63 billion.

Alana De Gasperis, director of planning and corporate affairs for Tacc Developments, said in an email the company "always believed" the land would be opened up for community development due to existing infrastructure, proximity to the existing communities, transit opportunities and population growth.

She said it's impossible to know the actual value of the land right now before the developers make significant investments in housing and other public goods.

Developer working on plan for 1,200-unit subdivision

Confidential negotiations are underway between Tacc Developments, the City of Pickering, the Region of Durham and the office of the provincial land and development facilitator, which is mediating the discussions.

The province has said it wants to see significant progress on approvals by next year, with construction to begin in 2025, or the areas removed from the Greenbelt will be returned.

De Gasperis said Tacc Developments is working on the first phase of what it's calling Cherrywood, named after a hamlet in the area, that will feature a minimum of 1,200 housing units.

"There will be various housing types, including significant affordable housing, as well as other uses, for example commercial, institutional and public spaces," De Gasperis said.

"We are working … [to] develop a complete, resilient, healthy community to provide much needed housing and to support the coexistence and well-being of people, the environment and nature."

Her statement didn't specify what kinds of housing Tacc Developments is planning to build. However, the Tacc Group of companies — which includes Tacc Developments, Tacc Construction, Arista Homes, Opus Homes and Decast Ltd., among others — are known mostly for building single-family attached and detached houses, as well as townhomes, in planned subdivisions across the GTA.

Pickering Coun. Mara Nagy said while she opposes developing the preserve, if building goes forward she wants to see a mixture of housing including single-family, multiplexes, low-rise apartment buildings, rental housing, co-ops, rent-geared-to-income units and community housing.

"If we're going to do something, let's put it all in there," said Nagy.

Community opposition, infrastructure present obstacles

The plan to build housing on the DRAP faces multiple roadblocks. The first being ongoing opposition from some community groups and the Official Opposition that has intensified in the wake of the auditor general's report.

Hundreds of people protested Sunday outside the office of Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, whose riding includes the agricultural preserve.

Two days later, NDP Leader Marit Stiles held a press conference alongside community groups opposed to development there.

"This is not going to be affordable housing. This is going to be luxury sprawl," Stiles said.

Stephen Marshall, vice-chair of the environmental advocacy group Land Over Landings, said the natural areas and farmland of the preserve form the "heart of the Greenbelt," connecting Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine.

"There's a lot of different species that rely on this to live and to migrate and travel," Marshall said.

"You rip the heart out of that, it creates untold problems."

The federal government is currently analyzing how serious those problems could be, as part of a study of the Rouge National Urban Park, which lies just west of the DRAP. Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said earlier this year that plans to build on the preserve could be shut down if the study shows a negative impact on biodiversity and at-risk species.

The local council also opposes development on the former Greenbelt, having voted in December to oppose the province's move, despite supportive comments from city staff

Beyond the local opposition, the lack of infrastructure on the site could slow building down.

In a report to council in May, Pickering's chief administrative officer said because the city has never planned for development there, major upgrades to water, sewer and transportation infrastructure would be needed that could take years to complete.

Separately, Durham Region's chief planner told the auditor general's team it would take as many as 25 years to fully service the area with infrastructure and services.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe said in a public statement last week that the city will fight for its interests even though the decision to build on the lands is being "imposed" on the city.

"We demand that Pickering be made whole and that any future development of these lands pays for itself," Ashe said.

Taxpayers won't pay for infrastructure, developer and government say

De Gasperis of Tacc Developments said taxpayers will not have to pay for the infrastructure.

"Developers are expected to and will be providing the public and taxpayers numerous public benefits — land for health care, fire and safety, parks, trails, urban agriculture," she said.

De Gasperis added that the Cherrywood area has roughly $2 billion worth of existing infrastructure that can be utilized.

Helen Brenner, a member of advocacy group Stop Sprawl Durham who also attended the NDP event on Tuesday, said the farmland isn't needed for development.

"The impact will be more homes in more remote areas, creating more car-dependency and the need for more costly infrastructure that will result in higher property taxes," she said.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Housing Minister Steve Clark said that taxpayers won't be on the hook for infrastructure.

"This initiative establishes conditions to ensure that billions of dollars worth of community benefits … as well as significant affordable and non-profit housing, are fully funded by the landowners and homebuilders — not Ontario or municipal taxpayers," Victoria Podbielski wrote in an email.

A spokesperson for the City of Pickering said once the developer submits its application, the city and other stakeholders, including the conservation authority, school boards, Durham Region, and utility providers, will be able to review and evaluate it along with supporting studies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan is a reporter with CBC Toronto. He has also worked for CBC in Vancouver, Yellowknife and Ottawa, filing for web, radio and TV. You can reach him by email at ryan.jones@cbc.ca.

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