As Pickering’s modest suburban homes give way to an expanse of farms north of Highway 401, roadside signs still tell drivers they are entering the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, “part of the Greenbelt.”
But these 1,900 hectares, which include some of the highest-grade agricultural soil in the country, are not in Ontario’s Greenbelt any more – even though they had been designated to remain farmland forever.
More than six months ago, the Duffins Rouge became the centrepiece of Premier Doug Ford’s promise-breaking move to allow housing on 3,000 hectares of the protected Greenbelt, which arcs around the Greater Toronto Area and was set up in 2005 to keep ecologically sensitive land off-limits to developers.
Rouge National Urban Park
Former Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve
The land in Pickering represents nearly two-thirds of the real estate Mr. Ford removed from the Greenbelt map, something he says is necessary as the province battles a housing shortage amid booming immigration. Developers aim to build 30,000 homes on the former preserve, the bulk of the 50,000 the Premier has promised would result from his Greenbelt carveouts.
But the plan in Pickering faces potential hurdles. A clock is ticking on the government’s self-imposed tight deadlines for developers to produce housing. Local municipal officials say the needed pipes and roads will take years and cost millions. And the federal Environment Minister has warned he could block development that harms endangered species or the adjacent Rouge National Urban Park.
Victor Doyle, the former senior Ontario planner who oversaw the creation of the 800,000-hectare Greenbelt, says the problems unveil the “deceit” in the current government’s claims that all of the removed land could be quickly and easily made ready for housing.
“These issues are not bumps in the road but major roadblocks demonstrating why these lands should never have been removed,” said Mr. Doyle, who along with other expert planners and environmentalists has said there is enough land already earmarked to meet Ontario’s housing targets without touching the Greenbelt.
The Greenbelt removals have fuelled questions about whether developers – many of whom are also donors to Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives – knew in advance of the government’s decision, which has since prompted investigations by Ontario’s Auditor-General and its Integrity Commissioner. The Premier and his Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, have denied tipping off developers.
The Ontario government has vowed to return land to the Greenbelt if there isn’t “significant progress on approvals and implementation” by the end of this year and if construction does not begin by 2025.
Confidential talks on the Duffins Rouge area have been under way since January between the developers, the local governments of Pickering and Durham Region and the office of the province’s land and development facilitator, an arm of the Municipal Affairs and Housing ministry that the province calls in to mediate land-use disputes. At issue are the developers’ plans for the area – and who will pay for all of the required infrastructure.
The largest landowners in the former agricultural preserve are companies linked to prominent Toronto-area developer Silvio De Gasperis, who according to a Globe analysis, has seen his holdings here shoot up in value by hundreds of millions of dollars now that they are outside the Greenbelt.
Officials in Durham Region say the preserve isn’t in their current 10-year infrastructure plan, since it was supposed to be left as agricultural land “in perpetuity.”
In an interview, chief administrative officer Elaine Baxter-Trahair said the region had yet to be assured its taxpayers would not have to cover any part of the added infrastructure bill – despite the province’s repeated statements that developers would “fully fund necessary infrastructure up front.”
With the looming deadlines, developers are focusing on a first phase of what they now call Cherrywood, taken from the name of a local village. This first phase could be accommodated with existing infrastructure, but includes only 1,200 homes – a fraction of the 30,000 contemplated for the entire former preserve.
Meanwhile, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has said he could use his powers under endangered species legislation to block development not just in the Duffins Rouge area, but in other lands removed from the Greenbelt. The federal government has previously taken similar action: It blocked a subdivision in La Prairie, Que., that threatened the habitat of the western chorus frog.
Mr. Guilbeault has already asked the federal government’s Impact Assessment Agency to launch a study of the potential effects of development in the Duffins Rouge lands on the neighbouring Rouge National Urban Park, a collection of farms and wooded areas around the Rouge River.
The Duffins Rouge land, a triangle on the park’s eastern flank, is dotted with a handful of hamlets and farmhouses. Many sport lawn signs urging the government to save the Greenbelt or stop sprawl.
Since the government announced its plans, locals have noticed an upswing in activity by work crews, including surveying and brush clearing, said Don Harvey, a lawyer who lives in the area. He said some of the workers have used equipment bearing the TACC logo, a group of companies owned by Mr. De Gasperis and his family.
“It’s really, really unique in the sense of where it is – it’s right on the edge of the city and virtually untouched in 100 years,” Mr. Harvey said of the preserve. “And it can’t ever be replaced.”
Mr. De Gasperis, a major Progressive Conservative Party donor, has been at the centre of the battle over the Duffins Rouge lands for much of the past 20 years. Back when the Greenbelt was created, he launched losing legal fights and waged a public campaign to try to get the protected farmland he purchased opened for development, land largely leased to tenant farmers.
The area was part of a larger expropriation by the province for development back in the early 1970s, along with property taken by the federal government to the north and reserved for a future airport that has not materialized. Most of the area west of Duffins Creek has been set aside for farmland by provincial governments of different stripes for decades.
In 1999, the province’s real estate agency, under the PC government of Mike Harris, started selling the land back to the original landowners or tenant farmers. A memorandum of understanding signed by Ontario, Durham Region and the City of Pickering deemed that the sales would be subject to local easements that required the land to remain agricultural “in perpetuity.” The amounts paid were a fraction of the prices that would have been the going rate had the land not been frozen for farming.
But developers, including companies linked to Mr. De Gasperis, began to buy up plots at those bargain prices and lobby to open them up for development.
The Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty then included the land in its new Greenbelt, which was proposed in 2004 and passed in 2005. Just a month later, Pickering, with the support of Durham, reneged on its deal and lifted some of the easements.
In response, the Liberals then passed additional legislation restoring the easements and requiring the province’s minister of natural resources to approve any move by Pickering to lift them again – a law Mr. Ford just scrapped.
According to property and corporate records analyzed by The Globe and Mail, Mr. De Gasperis owns 28 plots of land totalling 725 hectares in the former agricultural preserve through companies he controls with members of his family. The companies bought 24 of the properties in 2003 and 2004, paying between roughly $11,000 and $19,000 per hectare.
More recently, one of Mr. De Gasperis’s companies bought two more pieces of land in 2016 for about $87,000 per hectare. And in 2020, his companies purchased two additional properties for approximately $185,000 per hectare.
Even that higher price was still a bargain compared to land where development could be allowed. A 160-hectare plot outside the protected area was purchased in 2016 by a group of developers, including one of Mr. De Gasperis’s companies, for $160-million – or $1-million per hectare. Used as a rough comparison, it suggests Mr. De Gasperis’s 725 hectares could now be worth as much as $725-million – vastly more than the total $21.5-million property records show his companies paid for the land.
Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said the rise in value amounts to a windfall at the expense of taxpayers.
“The owners of this land paid a pittance for it because it could never be used for anything other than agriculture,” he said. “Now they’re being handed vastly valuable development rights that they never paid for.”
In an e-mailed statement, Alana De Gasperis, the director of planning and corporate affairs for Mr. De Gasperis’s TACC Developments, said the majority of the company’s holdings in the area were purchased “several years before” the Greenbelt and the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act were enacted. However, property records show most of the land was bought up in 2003 and 2004, after easements had been imposed meant to restrict the area to farming.
Ms. De Gasperis also pointed to the conclusions of Pickering’s 2004 growth management study that concluded part of the area was “better suited for urban development than for long term agricultural protection,” because of its proximity to existing development and infrastructure. (According to a report from Pickering’s director of planning at the time, the study was funded by $620,000 from the “landowners in the study area.”)
Ms. De Gasperis said her company always believed the land would be freed up for housing, given its proximity to existing communities and rising population. She pledged that “any infrastructure required to support community development in the Cherrywood area will be paid for by the developers, so the taxpayers do not pay.” Ms. De Gasperis also said the developers will provide “land for health care and educational facilities, parks, trails and community food gardens.”
Meanwhile, Mr. De Gasperis has filed a court application to try to get out of a summons ordering him to provide information to Ontario’s Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk, who is conducting a probe of the Greenbelt changes, as has another developer with interests in formerly Greenbelt land, Michael Rice.
Victoria Podbielski, a spokeswoman for the Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, said in an e-mail that the government is enforcing ”firm conditions” on developers to ensure “major public infrastructure and community benefits – like roads, water and sewer infrastructure, community centres, schools and health-care facilities – will be built and paid for by the proponents.” She also said it is the province’s “expectation” that 10 per cent of these homes will be “affordable,” although she did not provide details.
Ms. Podbielski also pointed to Pickering’s long-standing previous position that the land should be developed, a case its previous and current mayors made in letters to her minister last fall. But Pickering’s newly elected council – including Mayor Kevin Ashe – subsequently voted in December to scrap a staff recommendation approving development on the Greenbelt, after a public outcry.
Farm advocacy groups are among those against developing the land. The Ontario Farmland Trust has warned that this and other recent changes in Ontario that threaten to accelerate the loss of prime farmland are putting the province’s food supply at risk.
Clayton Reesor, 25, works for his family’s Sweet Ridge Farms, which both owns and rents farmland in the preserve and rents more land in the neighbouring Rouge Urban National Park. The business is well known in the area for its sweet corn, but also grows tomatoes, watermelons and other produce.
He says paving high-quality Ontario farmland and relying on imported food is a mistake. The business has already lost some of the fields it rents in the preserve. And while his family could sell its own land there and benefit from the coming development boom, Mr. Reesor says he prefers to keep farming, as Reesors have since the early 1800s.
“It’s in the blood,” he said. “We’ve done it for so many generations.”
With research by Rick Cash