In the middle of the dog days of summer, a major bomb dropped surrounding the fate of Ontario’s ever-controversial Greenbelt.
For those somehow in the dark, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released a 95-page report last week detailing how a non-transparent selection process for lands removed from the Greenbelt for housing development was “biased” and revealed “preferential treatment” for certain developers.
Namely, a small group of developers stand to see land values rise by a cool $8.3B thanks to the deal.
Back in November, the Ford government ruffled feathers when it announced it would open up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to development, while adding 9,400 acres elsewhere in order to help build 1.5 million homes across the province. In theory, the beloved Greenbelt, an area in Southern Ontario that surrounds a large portion of the Golden Horseshoe, is protected from development.
The report points fingers at one staffer in particular, Housing Minister Steve Clark’s Chief of Staff, Ryan Amato, outlining evidence that he engaged in backroom, dinner party dealings with the wealthy group of developers. Furthermore, the report revealed that a team of six staffers – with Amato front and centre – selected the Greenbelt land that would be removed in a mere three weeks. It outlines how land selection was done quickly and hastily, without any regard for environmental assessment criteria.
In short, this is right up there on the Doug Ford government scandal list. And it doesn’t look like one that’s going to be swept under the rug any time soon.
“We certainly knew that these Greenbelt land deals didn't pass the smell test, so I wasn’t surprised there was a corrupt process involved,” Mike Schreiner, head of Ontario’s Green Party, told STOREYS. “But I was shocked that the government was receiving direction directly from two land speculators, which moves public policy in such an inappropriate way to benefit such a small handful of people — to the tune of $3.8B.”
What Ford’s Team Has to Say
Ford isn’t budging when it comes to the Greenbelt decision. On Friday, Clark and Ford held a press conference in Mississauga to announce funding for an Indwell project, a charity initiative that creates affordable homes for people. The Premier took the occasion to comment on the Greenbelt findings, saying that “no one had preferential treatment” during the controversial Greenbelt land swap. “I disagree with preferential treatment,” said Ford. “No one had preferential treatment.”
It should be noted that this comes after Ford repeatedly claimed that both he and Clark have accepted Lysyk’s finding. Well, at least, he accepted 14 of the 15 recommendations from her report. He refuses to accept the big one: revisiting the land swaps and exploring a reversal of the decision. Still, both he and Clark stated in the days following the report’s release that the government failed to do due diligence in site selection. At Friday’s press conference, Clark also confirmed that Amato was still employed and will continue to work on his portfolio.
Ford is stressing that the housing crisis is the reason the land is so desperately needed, saying that it will be used to build 50,000 new homes. The premier has been vocal on social media to drive this point home, as the hashtags #greenbeltgate and #fordmustresign continue to gain momentum.
“The fact that he’s using the housing crisis as a cover for what they’re doing behind closed doors angered me,” NDP MPP Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West, Ancaster, Dundas), a vocal opposition critic for the environment, conservation, and parks, tells STOREYS. “I want to be perfectly clear that, yes, we’re in a housing crisis that requires all types of housing. There’s a definite need. But for the Ford government to use the crisis as an excuse for not following protocol and conducting corrupt business behind closed doors, is disturbing, because people are in need.”
Clark Has No Plans to Resign
Not surprisingly, Clark’s political opponents are calling for him to resign immediately and for the precious Greenbelt land to be reinstated. But, from the looks of things, that seems unlikely. In the wake of the report, Clark is carrying on like business as usual – and that’s only angering his opponents further.
“If Steve Clark doesn’t resign after this explosive report from the Auditor General, it not only shows an incredible lack of leadership, but a cowardice that I’m not shocked by,” says Shaw. “And now, they’re trying to put the focus on the chief of staff, and nobody is buying the story that Ford and Clark didn’t know what Amato was doing with such a huge file and such important powerful connected folks in Doug Ford’s world. If he doesn’t resign, or if Ford doesn’t fire Clark, what are they saying to the province of Ontario?”
What they’re saying is that the province needs housing – and quickly.
“At a time when Ontario is experiencing unprecedented growth, it’s never been more important to deliver on our commitment to build at least 1.5 million homes,” Victoria Podbielski,a spokesperson for Minister Clark, told STOREYS. “Last year alone, our province grew by more than 500,000 new residents. That’s more newcomers than Texas and Florida, the fastest-growing states in America, both of which are roughly double the size of Ontario’s total population. As we welcome more people, we need to build more homes of all types. It’s as simple as that.”
But is it as simple as a three-week-long selection process before deciding to develop on precious Greenbelt land – especially at a time when environmental concerns should be top of mind (i.e. the impacts of climate change couldn’t be more glaringly obvious)?
“These changes will support the construction of at least 50,000 new homes, while growing the Greenbelt by more than 2,400 acres,” continues Podbielski. “Critically, this initiative establishes 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 affordable and non-profit housing, are fully funded by the landowners and homebuilders — not Ontario or municipal taxpayers.”
Enough Land Elsewhere
While new housing sounds nice, local planners and experts have said that the Greenbelt land isn’t needed in order to meet housing development targets. This includes Toronto’s former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. She took to X (formerly Twitter) to highlight how she and other experts don’t think it’s necessary to build on Greenbelt land to ease the housing crisis.
“There are many reasons why we are not meeting our housing targets but the availability of land is not at the top of that list,” she writes in the post. She points to the elongated and costly approvals process, exceptionally high government fees (including HST), the province’s skilled labour shortage, and high construction costs.
In fact, Ford’s own government had previously been told that there is enough land elsewhere.
“Doug Ford’s own Housing Task Force of experts concluded that they already had enough land within the existing urban boundaries in the province that they didn’t need to open up the Greenbelt,” says Shaw. “That was their own task force. Good planners in municipalities across Ontario – for example, the City of Hamilton – have also acknowledged that we have enough room on land within these boundaries to build some 80,000 homes. So, it doesn’t make sense to say this is all about housing.”
Schreiner drives this point home. “Every study we’ve seen, including from professional planners – reconfirmed by the Auditor General – has revealed that none of this Greenbelt land is needed to build the homes we desperately need,” he says. “As a matter of fact, there’s enough land approved to not only build the 1.5 million homes – which is a goal that we all share – but we have enough to build two million homes. It had nothing to do with housing that people could afford, but everything to do with the premier breaking the rules for these elite land speculators to cash in at his expense.”
What About the Developers?
As for the developers, they deny any wrongdoing, despite heavily pushing back against the Auditor General's investigation. Silvio De Gasperis of the TACC Group of companies, for one, fought a summons from Lysyk, who requested information on their lands being selected for removal from the Greenbelt.
“The submission provided by TACC Group to the Province was identical to the submission TACC made to the 10-year Greenbelt Review in 2016 under the Liberal Government,” said Neil Wilson, a lawyer at Stevenson Whelton, who is representing TACC Group, when asked whether his client was villainized. “The lands in Pickering referenced in the submission were purchased well before the Greenbelt was created in 2005 and the review in 2016, and they were not part of the Draft Greenbelt Plan. The submission outlined the viability of a community development utilizing the existing and available infrastructure, valued at over $2B, while protecting important environmental features.”
Wilson says that there is no way of knowing the value of the land at this point in time. “There are significant costs to develop the land, which will be paid by the developers, including roads, parks, lands for healthcare, fire and safety, education, urban agriculture, as well as other community benefits and additional infrastructure,” he continues.
Wilson highlights that governments don’t build communities and housing. “Developers and homebuilders do, and they do it on private land,” says Wilson. “It takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, study, financial resources and work to do so. The TACC Group is one of the few developers with the breadth of experience, knowledge, and resources, as well as the land, to build complete and environmentally responsible communities to meet Ontario's housing needs.”
A Growing and Impossible-to-Ignore Pushback
Naturally, the revelations have been met with a loud and clear backlash from everyone from politicians and environmental activists to the media and everyday Ontario residents – and it’s only growing. “I hope they don’t get away with it because people’s lives are so busy, and they’re getting used to [the corruption],” says Shaw.
Schreiner says that Ontario deserves for the government to come out and say that they’re going to return these lands to the Greenbelt. “Minister Clark should resign and his chief of staff should be removed,” he says. “Someone in this government must be held accountable, because Premier Ford doesn’t seem to want to hold himself or anyone in his government accountable.”
On Sunday, hundreds of people in Pickering held a rally against Greenbelt development in Durham Region. Not far away were the 4,200 acres of land selected to be removed from Pickering’s Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. Meanwhile, Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy's tabling of the provincial budget on Monday was largely overshadowed by the scandal once the reporters’ questions started to roll in for Ford. Schreiner and Shaw are all for it.
“There was a complete disregard by the government for the environmental, agricultural, and financial risk outlined by the auditor general,” says Schreiner. “It really reveals the fact that this government doesn’t care about average people or about helping the housing crisis. Its primary focus is helping a small, elite group of land speculators cash in at our expense.”
Shaw says that there’s a good chance that Ford’s actions will actually make the housing crisis worse and exasperate it. “When big developers land bank – hold on to land and land speculate – that just drags up the cost of land for other developers,” says Shaw. “So, now, we’ve raised the cost of land we need to develop on. The auditor general herself has said that, because of this gift from Ford, these developers have enriched themselves to the tune of $8.3B – I can’t underscore that figure enough.”
Shaw highlights how the government has passed legislation that exempts developers from having to pay some of the development fees to municipalities. “If taxes aren’t raised, services could be cut,” says Shaw. “Now, people who just managed to get into their first home are going to be faced potentially by high hikes in their property taxes, because these costs are not being supported by developers, but being dumped on the municipalities. The idea that this is about addressing the housing crisis as a cover is actually deplorable.”
Shaw and Schreiner both hope that the mounting criticism will have an impact. “My hope is that the people of Ontario aren’t so beaten down by Ford’s constant decisions to benefit his friends over the people of the province that they will continue to ask for accountability,” says Shaw. But will the pushback be great enough for the government to reverse course?
The big question remains: what happens next? What we do know is that there are inquiries underway and that one watchdog and one criminal authority are looking into this. Passionate voices, like that of former auditor general and contender for the Liberal leadership Yasir Naqvi are calling for the OPP to investigate.
During a press conference when releasing the audit report, Lysyk said she had met with the OPP to share information that was uncovered during her team's investigation, but would not comment specifically on what that information entailed, or whether she thinks the OPP should investigate specific criminal activity.
Lysyk also requested that Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, who is also carrying out an investigation, specifically look into whether Amato broke any codes of ethics when making the decision to slice up the Greenbelt for development.
In the meantime, both Shaw and Schreiner stress the need to recall the Greenbelt legislature.
“We have called for the legislature to be called immediately because this is how we can hold this government to account and this is the means by which we can return land to the Greenbelt and cancel all these deals with developers,” says Shaw.
“So, our house leader has written to the PC house leader Paul Calandra to say that we need to recall the legislature immediately. We’re right in the depths of summer, so it’s understandable if people aren’t paying full attention to this. But, by the time we come back, we’ll be at the end of September – September 25. So, a month and a half from now, will this be something people still want to hear about? You can be damn sure that we will still be asking those questions and debating in the answer period – because people need answers – and introduce legislation that could reverse this decision.”
Shaw points to the hypocrisy in how Ford’s government dealt with the former Liberal government’s Ontario Hydro file mess. The PCs created a select committee on financial transparency and went so far as to subpoena former Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne.“They can’t walk the walk,” says Shaw. “They had this committee, yet they are now unwilling to unmask any wrongdoing on their part when they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. When it was the Liberals, it was different; they screamed outrage. They’re thinking, ‘We got caught, but we don’t care; we think that the people of Ontario are that stupid that they’ll buy our story; there’s nothing they can do about it.”
This week, for its (small) part, the Province made headlines when it announced it would create a working group to implement Lysyk’s recommendations, and a memo sent from Ford’s office to ministers’ chiefs of staff and deputy ministers reminds political staffers to follow the conduct rules outlined in the report.
While there are unknowns concerning the fate of the Greenbelt, one thing is for certain: this is far from the last we’ll hear of this.
- “A Death Sentence for the Greenbelt”: Experts Weigh in on New Housing Plan ›
- TACC's Silvio De Gasperis Fights Auditor General Summons Over Greenbelt Lands ›
- Opening the Greenbelt has Nothing to Do with Affordable Housing ›
- Housing Minister Chief Of Staff Resigns Amid Greenbelt Blowback ›
- Clark Staff Effectively Told Developers About Greenbelt Plans ›
- Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark Resigns ›