Housing, a hospital or both? Councillors in GTA township raise concerns about future of Greenbelt land

Elected officials in a Greater Toronto Area township are worried a possible deal that could see a developer donate Greenbelt land for a new hospital will also lead to unwanted residential development in the same area.

Developer who recently paid $80M for King Township land willing to provide some for hospital expansion

Elected officials in a Greater Toronto Area township worry a possible deal that could see a developer donate Greenbelt land for a new hospital will also lead to unwanted residential development in the same area.

As part of its recent proposal to open up sections of protected land for housing, the province is planning to carve out a parcel from the Greenbelt in the Township of King and redesignate an adjacent area of the Oak Ridges Moraine from agricultural to "settlement area." Doing so would open up both areas, located about 50 kilometres north of Toronto, for development.

King's council unanimously opposed the zoning change and voted to push the province to use the Greenbelt area for a planned expansion of Newmarket's Southlake Regional Health Centre. That resolution stated that the landowner would provide the necessary land for the hospital site for a "nominal fee."

But two of the seven councillors are concerned they will end up with not just a hospital, but also a subdivision they don't want. Their unease shows how some local leaders feel trampled by the Ford government's recent push to meet its goal of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

"There is no need for housing at that location," said King councillor Avia Eek, who represents the ward that includes the area.

"To have to make a deal to say, 'Yeah, we'll take the hospital and you can develop the land,' I think that's not very nice."

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Councillor Debbie Schaefer said the farmland is likely to be lost to urban sprawl.

"The property owner has recently bought this property for $80 million and so it's not going to sit there and be farmland," she said. "I've read nothing to suggest that he would be that kind of philanthropist to say that we're going to have the most expensive farmland in the world."

Records show the landowner paid $80 million for 278 hectares of farmland in the Greenbelt a little more than a month before the housing minister announced it would be opened for development.

'Our need is great'

Barb Steed, executive vice-president of clinical services at Southlake Regional Health Centre, said the hospital is expanding to a two-site model because its existing site in Newmarket is overcrowded.

"Just to meet the needs that we're serving right now, we should be 89 per cent bigger than we are. So our need is great," she said.

Southlake received a $5 million provincial grant to plan a new site earlier this year. Steed said the hospital would require up to 40 hectares but hasn't settled on a location yet.

"We would ideally be as close to this site as possible for logistics and what's best for patients."

The land in King is located on a vast expanse of farmland across from a Newmarket subdivision. It includes areas designated as "protected countryside" and "natural heritage system," two of the highest levels of Greenbelt protection.

Under current provincial regulations, building a hospital on such lands would be permitted and not require any rezoning.

Landowner purchased property in September

As CBC Toronto first reported, property ownership and corporate records show Green Lane Bathurst GP Inc. paid $80 million for five parcels of land there on Sept. 15 this year. The company, which was incorporated in July, lists Michael Rice as its director.

Rice is also president and CEO of Rice Group, a Markham-based retail, industrial and infrastructure developer. Rice Group is currently involved in several projects in York Region, including a residential subdivision and Loblaw distribution centre in East Gwillimbury and a Costco warehouse in Newmarket.

A person with the name Michael Rice has donated more than $10,000 to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario since 2018, according to Elections Ontario data, including a $946 donation made in 2020 to Housing Minister Steve Clark's riding association.

The same person has also donated a smaller amount to the Ontario Liberal Party.

CBC-Radio Canada reached out to Rice Group to ask about its plans for the land, but the company didn't respond to an interview request and a list of questions.

Eek, the councillor, said King Township planners have not designated the area for growth, which is meant to be concentrated in the already built-up areas of King City, Nobleton and Schomberg, according to the township's official plan.

"We've spent two-and-a-half years with public consultation, workshops, public meetings, making sure that our community in King Township is developed and built the way our residents want it, not the way somebody in Queens Park thinks it should be," said Eek.

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No conditions on land donation: mayor

King Mayor Steve Pellegrini said the location is ideal for the hospital expansion because it borders Newmarket, and is therefore close to both rapid transit and municipal servicing such as sewer and water infrastructure.

"It caught us a little off guard, but I'm gonna take the opportunity to … say here's an opportunity to get a new Southlake second campus and let's work hard to do that."

Pellegrini wouldn't provide details about any discussions between town staff and the developer, but said the offer to donate the land was made without conditions attached.

The mayor said he isn't aware of any plans to build homes just yet, but a new hospital could require other facilities such as an X-ray clinic, doctor's offices and a parking lot.

"We haven't seen a site plan application or anything," said Pellegrini.

In its Greenbelt proposal, the province said it wants to see significant progress on approvals by next year, with construction to begin in 2025, or the areas will be returned to the Greenbelt.

Steed, the hospital vice-president, said it would take at least 10 years to build the new hospital.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said it had received the King council's request to build the hospital, but reiterated that opening up sections of the Greenbelt would lead to the construction of 50,000 homes.

With files from Radio Canada's Katherine Brulotte

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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