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Ontario government’s Greenbelt land swap influenced by well-connected developers, AG finds

The Ontario government's process for choosing protected Greenbelt land to open up for housing development was heavily influenced by a small group of well-connected developers who now stand to make billions of dollars, the province's auditor general says.

Developers could see an $8B increase to value of land now open for housing development, report finds

A woman gives a press conference.

The Ontario government's process for choosing protected Greenbelt land to open up for housing development was heavily influenced by a small group of well-connected developers who now stand to make billions of dollars, the province's auditor general says.

In a widely-anticipated 95-page report released Wednesday, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk offered a damning assessment of how the province selected sites last year for removal from the Greenbelt — a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough that was meant to be off limits to development.

Lysyk found the selection process was largely controlled by Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff — not non-partisan public servants — and was influenced by specific suggestions from developers with access to the chief of staff.

Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark are scheduled to speak to media at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch that news conference in the player above.

Lysyk said Clark's chief of staff directed a small team of housing ministry bureaucrats in October 2022 who decided which sites would be removed. The work of the so-called "Greenbelt Project Team" was limited to three weeks and they were sworn to confidentiality, limiting their ability to assess the appropriateness of the land sites or to suggest alternatives, according to the report.

"What followed cannot be described as a standard or defensible process," Lysyk said at a press conference at Queen's Park on Wednesday.

"The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister's chief of staff."

According to Lysyk's report, Clark's chief of staff identified 21 of the 22 sites the team considered. Ultimately, they settled on 15.

The process didn't consider agricultural, environmental and financial impacts of the decision, and involved little input from non-political planning experts or other stakeholders, including the general public and Indigenous communities, according to the report.

12 of 15 parcels of land removed came from developer suggestions

Ontario's Greenbelt was initially created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from falling victim to urban sprawl.

The Ford government removed approximately 2,995 hectares of land from the Greenbelt in December — while adding more land elsewhere — to build 50,000 homes. The government said the changes were part of its plan to build 1.5 million new homes in the next decade to ease Ontario's housing crisis.

Lysyk agreed to look into this decision in January following a request from the leaders of all three opposition parties, who raised concerns about whether developers who benefitted from the Greenbelt decision knew about it in advance.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have repeatedly denied tipping off developers.

WATCH | Ford over the years on developing the Greenbelt:

Here’s what Doug Ford has said over the years about developing Ontario’s Greenbelt

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Duration 0:40

From pledging to never build on it in 2018 to saying it's part of the solution to Ontario's housing crisis in 2022, here's how the premier's position on the controversial issue has changed.

Instead of finding they were tipped off, Lysyk found it was the developers themselves who, in many cases, successfully lobbied to have specific sites they owned opened up for housing development.

Lysyk's audit found that 12 of the 15 parcels of land chosen for removal from the Greenbelt came from specific requests from developers or their representatives.

"Many of these individuals had advocated for the removal in emails and in-person meetings within a few months prior to their removal," according to the report. "For example, one lawyer representing three housing developers emailed the Chief of Staff on September 27 and 29, 2022, providing site specific details for the land they sought to develop."

According to a timeline of key events, two prominent housing developers approached Clark's chief of staff in September 2022 at a building industry event, and provided him with packages containing information on two sites in the Greenbelt – the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering and a site in the Township of King that was purchased that very month for $80 million.

Shortly after, one of the developers provided Clark's chief of staff with information related to three other sites.

"About 92 per cent of the land that was ultimately removed from the Greenbelt was requested to be removed by the developers the Chief of Staff dined with at [the event]," the report says.

Lysyk said the chief of staff's behaviour may have contravened political activity and conflict of interest rules.

Clark told the audit general's office he was unaware that his chief of staff was working on this project, according to the report, and the chief of staff told Lysyk he did not inform his boss.

"The Greenbelt exercise calls into question who, if anyone, was supervising the non-elected chief of staff as he personally directed the Greenbelt project team through most of October 2022," Lysyk said.

"In our view, the housing minister ought to have known the key details of such a high profile and politically sensitive government exercise, and ensure that Cabinet and the premier were also made fully aware of these details."

Value of land to increase by estimated $8.3B

Citing the Municipal Impact Assessment Corporation, which is responsible for calculating property values in Ontario, Lysyk estimates the landowners of the 15 sites that were removed could see their value increase by $8.3 billion.

"While the people of Ontario deserve prompt action to solve societal problems like those generated by a need for housing, this does not mean that government and non-elected political staff should sideline or abandon protocols and processes that are important to guide objective and transparent decision-making based on sufficient and accurate information," Lysyk said in a news release accompanying the release of the report.

WATCH | CBC's About That examines plans to develop the Greenbelt:

Should housing be built on Ontario’s Greenbelt? | About That

7 months ago

Duration 24:07

Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently opened part of the province's Greenbelt to build homes. But critics say there are options other than building on farmlands and wetlands. Andrew Chang takes a trip with Narwhal reporters Emma McIntosh and Fatima Syed to talk about the ecological cost — and who benefits.

Lysyk's audit also found that removing land from the Greenbelt was not needed to meet the government's housing target, as previously noted by the Ford government's hand-picked Housing Affordability Task Force. According to Lysyk, the government had already allocated the 1.5 million units to municipalities by October 2022 — one month before the government announced its controversial Greenbelt proposal.

The report says the boundary changes removed environmental protections for almost 404 hectares of woodlands and wetlands. On top of that, Ontario's agriculture ministry estimated that 76 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was being used for farming in 2022, and 83 per cent of the land removed is classified as "prime agricultural land" — the highest quality farmland in the province.

Liberals, NDP call for Clark's resignation

Opposition parties were quick to react to the report's findings.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the findings were evidence of "corruption, collusion, and fiscal irresponsibility" and she called for Clark to resign immediately.

"Ontarians deserve better than a government that enriches a select number of party donors at the expense of hard-working Ontarians," Stiles said in a news release. ""This is not about Mr. Ford, this is not about politics, this is about reinstating Ontarians' trust in their government. Trust that this government has seriously eroded with their insider dealings and culture of corruption that goes all the way up to the Premier."

John Fraser, interim Liberal leader, also called for Clark to step aside.

"There is no way on God's green Earth that Minister Clark's chief of staff acted without the minister's full knowledge or direction," said Fraser said in a statement. "Ministers make decisions; their chiefs of staff implement them."

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the report shows that the Ford government's agenda favours "wealthy, elite insiders" at the expense of regular Ontarians.

"What this demonstrates to me is a total lack of care for the people of Ontario — a willingness to break all the rules to sell off the land that feeds us and protects to wealthy insiders, leaving the rest of us to foot the bill," Schreiner said in a statement.

Report makes 15 recommendations

In the report, Lysyk makes 15 recommendations, the largest of which is to re-evaluate the decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries. Other recommendations include clarifying the roles of chiefs of staff versus deputy ministers, and strengthening the Officer of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, who is conducting a separate investigation into the Greenbelt decision.

Ford's chief of staff provided a response to Lysyk's findings on behalf of the government, which was included in the report.

The response cites the need for the government to increase the supply of housing to address the ongoing housing affordability crisis and keep up with Ontario's rapidly growing population.

The response said the lands were in "municipally requested non-sensitive areas" and that the Greenbelt ultimately expanded by 971 hectares.

"Critically, this initiative impacted non-publicly owned lands and established conditions to ensure that billions of dollars worth of community benefits such as new roads, parks, transit, water, and health-care infrastructure, as well as significant non-profit housing contributions, among other anticipated public benefits, are fully funded by the landowners and builders — not Ontario or municipal taxpayers," the response said.

The response said the government is working to ensure that new home construction begins on these lands no later than 2025, with significant progress on approvals and implementation achieved by the end of 2023.

"Our government continues to believe that building more homes is one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing our province and we will not relent in our commitment to build a minimum of 1.5 million homes in 10 years, including by delivering attainable and affordable homes on the lands unlocked from the Greenbelt," the response said.


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.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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