Developers’ Influence on Greenbelt Extraction Sparks Controversy in Ontario

In a scathing special report, Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, has revealed a troubling connection between developers and the province’s decision to extract Greenbelt lands. The report highlights what appears to be preferential treatment afforded to developers, with indications that they exerted direct influence over the decision-making process. This revelation follows a rigorous six-month investigation that involved interviews with key figures, including Premier Doug Ford, who staunchly denied any impropriety.

The investigation lays bare a compelling link between the Premier’s Office, the housing minister, a central political aide who played a pivotal role, and the developers who reaped benefits from the controversial maneuver. The timing of these actions raises concerns, as the Ford government embarked on the endeavor to remove protected lands from the Greenbelt shortly after securing re-election.

This move has had significant financial implications, with the auditor general estimating that the value of the 15 parcels of land extracted from the Greenbelt has surged by a staggering $8.3 billion.

Key revelations from the report include:

  1. In a mandate letter issued in June 2022, Premier Doug Ford instructed Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark to oversee a series of changes related to the Greenbelt, encompassing “swaps, expansions, contractions, and policy updates.”
  2. The policy’s implementation was spearheaded by the chief of staff to Minister Clark, who was operating under the authority of the Premier’s Office.
  3. The chief of staff received proposals from two prominent housing developers, outlining specific sites they aimed to target for removal from the Greenbelt.
  4. A team of government employees, bound by confidentiality, faced an incredibly tight timeline of three weeks to identify and evaluate up to 22 parcels of land for potential extraction.
  5. When certain lands failed to meet the established development standards necessary for removal, the criteria were conveniently adjusted to accommodate the removal of parcels owned by developers with established government connections.
  6. Astonishingly, a staggering 92% of the total 7,400 acres extracted can be directly attributed to the influence of developers with access to the chief of staff.

Greenbelt directive came from Ford

In the aftermath of the June 2022 election, the intriguing revelation has emerged from Lysyk’s investigative report: Housing Minister Steve Clark was handed a fresh mandate letter as the government embarked on its second term in office.

According to the report, Premier Ford directed the Housing Minister through a mandate letter dated June 29, 2022, in the wake of the June 2, 2022, general election. The directive tasked the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing with the mission to “complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt.” The report indicated that this work was expected to be completed during the fall of 2022.

Interestingly, the report pointed out that the responsibility for identifying specific plots of land fell under the purview of the minister’s chief of staff, acting under the guidance of Premier Ford’s office. Although the report refrains from explicitly naming the chief of staff, available government records and a LinkedIn profile point to Ryan Amato, who assumed the role of chief of staff for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in July 2022, the same month when work on the Greenbelt adjustments commenced.

The report underscored that Amato’s appointment was made by the Premier’s Office and highlighted his subsequent engagement with developers to pinpoint specific parcels of land. This process involved superseding input from provincial officials and initiating a site-specific assessment. Lysyk expressed concern that this decision ultimately resulted in a concentrated focus on select developers’ land parcels, rather than a comprehensive and system-wide review of the Greenbelt.

Lysyk’s report characterized the subsequent events as deviating from standard and defensible procedures, unveiling her findings on Wednesday.

In response to the report’s release, Premier Ford acknowledged that the housing crisis was a driving force behind the government’s decision to repurpose Greenbelt lands. He contended that these lands could provide much-needed housing without burdening taxpayers with the costs of necessary infrastructure.

Speaking in Toronto, Ford conceded that there could have been a more optimal process. He took responsibility for the decision and the procedure, clarifying that he wasn’t informed about the specific details of the land changes until a cabinet meeting convened to approve the alterations.

Ford expressed his commitment to implementing the majority of the recommendations put forth by Lysyk’s team, indicating a proactive stance in addressing the concerns raised by the report.

Clark and Greenbelt

In October 2022, a team of six non-political personnel within the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, known as the Greenbelt Project Team, was established to formulate a land removal strategy. Under strict confidentiality measures and a constrained schedule, this group was tasked with evaluating protected land for potential removal.

The auditor general’s assessment revealed that the Greenbelt Project Team had a mere three weeks to assess viable land for removal. Initially presented with eight plots for consideration, an additional 13 sites were later included by Amato, along with a request for suggestions for further removal sites.

According to the auditor general’s report, Amato acknowledged receiving requests for land removal from developers during development events. Notably, at a September 14, 2022 event, two influential developers handed over information about Greenbelt sites they wished to see removed. The report highlighted that one of these developers shared a dinner table with the Chief of Staff.

Shockingly, these developers secured the removal of a substantial 92% of Greenbelt land, as noted by Lysyk.

Amato informed the auditor general that he didn’t immediately review the submissions from developers but maintained them in his office. He also claimed to have not disclosed to the developers that the government was considering Greenbelt land removal.

The auditor general underscored that the process exhibited bias favoring specific developers and landowners who enjoyed direct access to the housing minister’s chief of staff.

Lysyk hinted that political motivations guided the timeline for Greenbelt land removals. She found that the rapid timeline lacked clear justification and was designed to align the announcement of land removals and additions with the government’s fall housing legislation.

The swift three-week sprint was governed by strict confidentiality agreements that restricted the team from seeking external input. This lack of consultation prevented engagement with experts, local municipalities, ministries, and Indigenous communities, according to the auditor general’s findings.

Furthermore, Lysyk’s report indicated that the criteria for land removal shifted during the process. Initially, the team was tasked with evaluating land for infrastructure compatibility, including wastewater and roads. However, this requirement was later amended to focus solely on Greenbelt land adjoining existing built-up areas, after the team indicated that the original scope was unfeasible within the given timeline.

The report revealed that concerns about environmental and agricultural implications of constructing housing on the land were part of the initial scope. However, when the Greenbelt team determined that all eight of the initial land plots violated this criterion, the requirement was abandoned.

The report also noted alterations made to certain sites that were eventually removed from the Greenbelt, in order to fit different criteria.

Lysyk emphasized that the process had such a limited scope and tight deadlines that the Greenbelt team only managed to identify one additional removal site. Despite receiving 630 requests to remove land from the Greenbelt, the team only assessed 22 plots.

The auditor general highlighted that 95% of the land parcels evaluated by the team were recommended by Clark’s chief of staff, and 92% of the land removed from the Greenbelt belonged to five plots provided by two developers to the Housing Minister’s chief of staff.

“As a result of what we saw during the course of our work, we put recommendations in here that we think are needed to be looked at,” Lysyk concluded.

“The Premier… [was] unaware”

As part of her investigation, Lysyk conducted an interview with Premier Ford, during which he denied engaging in personal discussions with developers regarding the land exchange or personally handpicking the parcels of land that were eventually excluded from the Greenbelt.

According to the report, the premier received a briefing on November 1, 2022, a day prior to the public announcement. During this briefing, he was presented with the list of 15 land parcels slated for removal.

Ford asserted that this marked his initial exposure to the specific roster of Greenbelt lands and emphasized that he did not issue directives to either political or non-political staff to target specific land areas for removal from the Greenbelt.

Elected officials, as detailed in the report, attempted to lay responsibility on Amato, attributing her as a central figure in the Greenbelt strategy.

“The Premier and the Minister of Housing have communicated to us that they were unaware that the pre-selection of lands for removal from the Greenbelt was biased, controlled and directed by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff,” the report highlights.

Internally, however, civil servants responsible for executing the government’s directives had a distinct understanding of the hierarchical structure: “Political staff understood that most of the land sites were provided by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff, who took direction from the Minister and Premier’s Office.”

Furthermore, the report underscores that although the Ford administration currently has no immediate plans to further reduce the Greenbelt area, senior members of the Premier’s Office held the belief that such actions were in the pipeline.

“The Chief of Staff of the Premier’s Office confirmed the intention was to continue with future land removal from the Greenbelt and that the 2022 process to alter the boundaries of the Greenbelt had not been intended to be a one-time exercise,” the report reveals.

Open-ended, no implementation plans in place

Amidst a barrage of criticism from opposition parties, the Ford government has defended its decision to remove land from the Greenbelt, asserting that it was necessary to achieve the ambitious goal of creating 1.5 million new homes in Ontario by 2031.

Nevertheless, the auditor general’s report contradicts this stance, indicating that a number of key planning experts had advised the province that the Greenbelt could remain untouched without compromising its housing objective.

Prominent planning officials from Durham, Halton, and York Regions, where the Greenbelt land was extracted, informed the auditor general that the relinquished land was not essential to meet the housing targets. They clarified that a significant portion of this land would pose challenges in terms of infrastructure development within the province’s specified timelines.

Furthermore, these officials emphasized that the housing targets for delivering the 1.5 million homes had already been allocated to them by October 2022, prior to the removal of protected Greenbelt land. These housing targets were assigned by a separate provincial team that, as stated to the auditor general, was unaware that the Greenbelt would be altered in the following weeks.

Lysyk’s report exposes the lack of a formal mechanism by the province to oversee whether developers actually follow through on their commitment to construct housing within the designated timeframe.

One of the primary prerequisites for the removal of land from the Greenbelt was that construction on new homes commence no later than 2025. The Ford government had assured that if developers failed to make progress, the land would be returned to the Greenbelt.

“However, we found that, as (of) June 2023, neither the Housing Ministry nor the government had further defined their expectations in order for performance indicators to be established and targets set so that progress and results can be objectively monitored, measured and publicly reported,” the report elaborated.

The constraints imposed on Greenbelt staff by the tight timeline have led to uncertainty regarding the extent to which the land will be developed by 2025, as highlighted in the report.

The government assured the auditor that if these conditions are not met, the affected lands will be promptly reinstated to the Greenbelt.

Information for this briefing was found via Global Times and the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

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