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Greenbelt 2.0? Why Doug Ford’s boundary changes in Ottawa and Hamilton could make developers rich

The same day that Premier Doug Ford’s government announced its plans to take certain developers’ land out of the Greenbelt, it also made moves that benefitted developers who own rural land on the outskirts of Ottawa and Hamilton.

Premier Doug Ford's government added more parcels of land to each city than councils recommended

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers during a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. The announcement comes after a second cabinet minister resigned in the wake of the Greenbelt controversy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Walton

On the same Friday afternoon last November that Premier Doug Ford's government announced its plan to take certain developers' land out of the Greenbelt, it also made moves that benefited developers who own rural land on the outskirts of Ottawa and Hamilton.

It did so by expanding each city's boundaries, instantly turning certain parcels of agricultural land from rural to urban, opening them up to future housing development and sharply increasing their potential value.

Opposition parties believe these moves have strong parallels with what Ford's government did in selecting 15 parcels of Greenbelt land for housing development, potentially boosting their value by $8.3 billion, until ultimately reversing course last month.

That's prompting calls for investigations into the Hamilton and Ottawa boundary changes, focused on why certain land parcels were picked despite objections from each city council.

"We see some connections … and we want to get to the bottom of it," said NDP Leader Marit Stiles.

Stiles says some of the same developers who stood to benefit from the Greenbelt removals still stand to benefit from the government's expansions of urban boundaries.

"What we suspect has happened here is the system has been rigged by the Conservatives to give certain land speculators preferential treatment on these particular pieces of land," Stiles said in an interview.

Stiles wrote to Ontario's auditor general's office on Friday to request an investigation into the government's expansions of urban boundaries in Ottawa and Hamilton, as well as its changes to other official land-use plans, such as Waterloo, Niagara and York regions.

Revelations from the auditor's August report into how the government selected Greenbelt properties for housing development helped trigger a cascade of resignations and, ultimately, Ford's late September announcement that he's scrapping the plan.

The auditor estimated that the Greenbelt removals boosted the value of previously agricultural land by a factor of at least 10 times.

Both Ottawa and Hamilton city councils want the government to reconsider the boundary changes, and so far the government is refusing.

"The province follows a standard official plan review and amendment process that is open to the public and which has the goal of ensuring municipalities are properly prepared to accommodate growth," Alexandru Cioban, a spokesperson for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra, said in an email to CBC News.

"The province has and will continue to take decisive action that ensures municipalities are properly prepared to meet their housing targets and build the homes their residents need," Cioban said.

The government's expansions to Hamilton's and Ottawa's boundaries went against what the two city councils wanted, adding hundreds of more hectares to each city despite concerns that it would encourage sprawl.

WATCH | The story of Doug Ford's Greenbelt disaster:

'I'm very, very sorry': the story of Doug Ford's Greenbelt disaster

12 days ago

Duration 7:22

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced he is reversing a contentious land swap for the province's protected Greenbelt. Andrew Chang breaks down the messy course of events that led to this decision.

Ottawa-area farmland purchased in 2021

The most controversial property captured by the province's expansion of Ottawa's boundaries is prime agricultural land on Watters Road in Orléans, more than 20 kilometres from the city centre.

  • In February 2021, Ottawa city council explicitly excluded that 37-hectare farm when it voted on its own plans to enlarge the city's urban boundaries.
  • In August 2021, a newly incorporated company called 1177 Watters Developments Ltd. bought the farm for $12.7 million.
  • In November 2022, the Ford government made the land part of the City of Ottawa with the stroke of a pen.

The company's five directors donated more than $12,000 to the Ontario PC Party in 2021 and 2022, CBC Ottawa's Kate Porter revealed last November.

Liberal Party interim leader John Fraser, the MPP for Ottawa South, questions why the government put this parcel into the city's boundaries.

"You've got a group of people who buy a piece of land in 2021", said Fraser. "This is land that you're probably never going to build on, because it's zoned agricultural. And then all of a sudden this piece of land, totally inappropriate, appears [within the urban boundary] and then the value of that land triples."

"That's worthy of a second look," Fraser told reporters at Queen's Park. "I think reasonable people will go, 'That just doesn't smell right.'"

Last week, Ottawa city council formally requested that Calandra review the boundary expansion.

Hamilton council wanted no boundary expansion

In Hamilton, the province ordered the city last November to add 2,200 hectares, despite council's previous vote in favour of maintaining existing boundaries.

Among the properties that were wrapped into Hamilton's new boundaries: land owned by some of the same people whose holdings were among the 15 parcels removed from the Greenbelt last November.

As previously reported by CBC Hamilton's Samantha Beattie, the land added to Hamilton's urban boundaries includes properties owned in part by developers Sergio Manchia of UrbanCore Developments and Paul Paletta of Alinea Group Holdings, formerly Penta Properties.

According to the Ontario integrity commissioner's report into the Greenbelt, the two developers used the same representative to make their requests both for Greenbelt removals and for changes to Hamilton's official plan. The urban boundary changes were part of the government's amendments to that official plan.

The integrity commissioner's report says the representative, Matt Johnston (along with lobbyist Peter Van Loan), met with two of then-minister Steve Clark's senior staff members in October 2022.

"We were presented with the changes the minister was considering making to the Hamilton Official Plan and asked to verify our comfort level with them," Johnston told the integrity commissioner.

Johnston says the meeting was to review the merit of submissions he had filed on Hamilton's official plan.

"None of them had anything to do with the approved urban boundary expansion areas," Johnston said Monday in an email to CBC News.

"I had no role whatsoever in influencing the province's decision," he said, adding that he is a registered professional planner, not a lobbyist.

Hamilton council's view was that there was no need to expand boundaries because sufficient new housing could be built by increasing density within the existing city limits, and because extending municipal services such as water and sewerage further from the core would be costly.

After Ford reversed course on the Greenbelt last month, Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath called for a similar reversal.

But the word from the municipal affairs and housing minister's office is no.

"This decision will not be revisited," Calandra's director of issues management, Chris Poulos, told CBC Hamilton on Sept. 22, the day after Ford apologized for breaking his promise not to touch the Greenbelt and announced his reversal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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