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Ontario tables bill to return lands to the Greenbelt

The Canadian Press
Ontario tables bill to return lands to the Greenbelt

TORONTO — Ontario’s municipal affairs and housing minister introduced legislation Oct. 16 to return parcels of land to the protected Greenbelt — a move he hoped will close a difficult chapter for the government, though an RCMP investigation still looms.

Paul Calandra said the bill would reverse the Greenbelt removals his government made last November with a goal of building 50,000 homes on the land, and restore the former protections. It would also ensure any future boundary changes would have to be done by law and not just by regulation — as the Tories did last year.

After months of public outcry, and reports from both the auditor general and the integrity commissioner that found the process favoured certain developers, Premier Doug Ford announced last month that he was backing away from his plan and promised not to remove any more land from the Greenbelt.

Calandra, who took over the file in early September after Steve Clark resigned amid the Greenbelt fallout, said he hoped the legislation allows the government to move forward.

“We made a mistake,” Calandra said after tabling the bill.

“I’m acknowledging that mistake. It was a process that could not be supported. It was a process that took us off of what we have been trying to do for the last number of years, which is make it easier to build homes for people, make it more affordable. We’re moving in the direction of refocusing and getting back on track.”

But the RCMP is now investigating the government’s decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt for development, and opposition politicians said there are still a lot of outstanding questions.

The RCMP announced last week that its “sensitive and international investigations unit” had started a formal investigation. The unit performs political investigations that examine elected officials on allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust.

Ford’s office said the government would co-operate with the investigation and Ford has previously said he is confident nothing criminal took place.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he, too, will continue to seek answers.

“Why has the government wasted the last year-and-a-half focused on helping a handful of land speculators cash in $8.3 billion, instead of actually focusing in on building homes that ordinary people can afford?” he said.

The auditor general found that more than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was in five sites passed on to the then-housing minister’s chief of staff by two developers he met at an industry event. The property owners stood to see their land value rise by $8.3 billion, the auditor found.

The government’s new bill also contains an indemnity clause, protecting staff from liability.

The original Greenbelt Act of 2005 mandates a review every 10 years, and Calandra said the next one will be conducted by “impartial, nonpartisan experts in conservation, agriculture and environmentalism, and will include engagement with Indigenous communities and municipalities.”

It will be up to the independent panel to decide whether to consider the hundreds of Greenbelt removal requests that have accrued over the years from landowners and developers, Calandra said.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser noted that the Globe and Mail reported that the Progressive Conservative government appointed a woman whose brother and husband run a prominent development company to sit on the Greenbelt Foundation, dedicated to protecting those lands.

“I’m not sure in the legislation – the devil’s in the details – how confident I am in an independent panel, appointed by this government,” he said.

“The good news for the environment and for the people of the GTA is, it looks like the Greenbelt is going to be back to where it was and I don’t think this government’s ever going to touch it again. Our bigger problem is we’ve got a government that believes that they can give wealthy, well connected insiders the inside track over the rest of us.”

The integrity commissioner said he had no evidence of developers being specifically tipped off that the government was considering Greenbelt removals, though “it is more likely than not” that someone gave one developer a head’s up.

Largely, the actions of the housing minister’s chief of staff had the effect of alerting developers that a policy change was afoot, the commissioner found.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

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