The Ontario government’s now-cancelled bid to open up parts of the province’s environmentally protected Greenbelt to development was more ambitious than previously known, documents show.
In November, 2022, Steve Clark, who was then the province’s housing minister, announced that the government would allow a select group of developers to build housing on 15 sites spanning 3,000 hectares in the Greenbelt, a zone of farmland, forests and wetlands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe where development is restricted.
That same day, he took steps to designate two other parcels of Greenbelt land in York Region, north of Toronto, for urban use – but through a different mechanism that attracted no public attention.
In a 12-page Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing decision dated Nov. 4, the government signalled its intent to open up the two additional sites through a provincial override of York Region’s official plan, a municipal policy document that guides development.
Unlike the other 15 Greenbelt sites, which were the focus of widespread media coverage and investigations by two independent watchdogs, the two parcels of land in York Region never became subjects of controversy.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford made no mention of those properties in late September, when, after months of public outcry that the Greenbelt carveouts had unfairly favoured certain developers, he backed down on the development plans, apologized to the public and vowed not to touch the area again.
Mr. Clark, who resigned from cabinet last month as the Greenbelt backlash intensified, referred questions about the two sites in York Region to Chris Poulos, a spokesperson in his former office. Mr. Poulos said in an e-mail last week that the government has not made the legislative amendments that would have been necessary to open the two sites to development.
“The government does not intend to consider any proposal to remove land from the Greenbelt,” he said.
Victor Doyle, a former senior Ontario government planner who oversaw the creation of the Greenbelt in 2005 under then-premier Dalton McGuinty, said Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives never mentioned during the entire Greenbelt “fiasco” that they were planning to make further incursions into the protected region.
“The bottom line is there were more lands to be removed from the Greenbelt, and the government did it by stealth through this ministerial revision process,” he said last week.
Mr. Clark delegated responsibility to ministry staff to approve York Region’s official plan, and so, Mr. Doyle said, “The buck stops with him.”
One of the York Region properties is located in the northeast corner of Vaughan, and the other is located near the Gormley GO Station, a public-transit hub in Richmond Hill. Their owners have tried for years to get permission to develop them.
The two parcels of land are mentioned in a report by Ontario Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, who concluded that Mr. Clark broke ethics rules by failing to properly oversee the Greenbelt removals. For the report, released in August, Mr. Wake interviewed Mr. Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who resigned about two weeks before his boss.
The report does not say that the government planned to open the two sites in York Region through a different mechanism. Mr. Amato told Mr. Wake that the government had considered carving them out of the Greenbelt, in addition to the 15 other properties, but doing so would be “problematic.”
The two sites are located within the boundary of the environmentally sensitive and legally protected Oak Ridges Moraine. Opening them to development would have required changing the regulations governing the conservation area. Mr. Amato said ministry officials were averse to removing properties subject to other barriers to development, in addition to being located within the Greenbelt.
Mr. Amato brought the Richmond Hill property adjacent to the Gormley GO Station to the attention of ministry officials. He provided them with a two-page memo and map addressed to him. The memo, dated Oct. 3, asked for the land to be removed from the Greenbelt, but its sender was not identified, Mr. Wake says in his report.
The same month, Michael Rice, chief executive officer of the Rice Group, a development company, entered into an agreement with two business partners to purchase the property from Asha Batra, the report says. Ms. Batra still owns it, according to property records, and has tried to develop it for several years. She transferred a portion of the property in 2014 to Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, for the nearby Gormley GO Station.
The wording of the Oct. 3 memo, the report notes, is “almost identical” to a document Mr. Rice had sent to Mr. Amato regarding a different property the Rice Group owns in nearby King Township. That property was one of the 15 temporarily removed from the Greenbelt before the government reversed its decision.
Mr. Rice did not respond to a request for comment about the Richmond Hill property, and Ms. Batra could not be reached for comment.
The Vaughan property, on the northeast corner of Teston Road and Dufferin Street, is owned by Lucia Milani, who spent nearly a year in talks with the Ontario government about building housing there, the CBC reported in September, 2019.
“The file is now closed,” Mr. Clark told the CBC at the time. “My commitment to protecting the Greenbelt has not changed.”
Ms. Milani could not be reached for comment about the changes to York Region’s official plan.
By endorsing the revisions to the region’s plan, Mr. Clark went over the heads of local councillors. The regional council “did not contemplate urban uses” on either site in the Greenbelt, chief planner Paul Freeman said in an e-mail response to The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Ford remains under fire for presiding over land-use policies that extend well beyond the Greenbelt. The government is using its authority to override official plans to permit more development, often against the wishes of local politicians, all in the name of addressing the province’s housing crisis.
The government made changes to several official plans on Nov. 4. Along with York Region’s, it designated additional areas for urban expansion in Ottawa and expanded the boundaries of Hamilton by 2,200 hectares against that city’s will.
“The City of Hamilton has been crystal clear,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement last week. “They want to keep their urban boundary where it is and build affordable homes within existing neighbourhoods.”
With a report from Stephanie Chambers