Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his government is looking at returning two parcels of land swapped out of the protected Greenbelt after discovering the properties have been listed for sale, but the owner of one of the properties insists it is all a misunderstanding – that the listing was simply a bid to locate a partner to develop the land.
“This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people. In response, our government is exploring every option available to us, including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt,” Mr. Ford said.
“To the other property owners, you’re on notice: If you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt.”
The Greenbelt is an environmentally protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. Mr. Ford’s government has faced widespread criticism for its decision last fall to break its oft-repeated promises to leave the Greenbelt intact. Instead, it removed protections from 3,000 hectares, adding protected land elsewhere. Mr. Ford has said the move was necessary to build 50,000 homes to address the housing crisis, although experts have said there is enough land outside the Greenbelt to do so.
His government has been under fire ever since an Auditor-General’s report earlier this month said the process for selecting which Greenbelt lands would be opened to development was “biased” and had “favoured certain developers,” delivering them a potential $8.3-billion windfall.
According to Bonnie Lysyk’s Aug. 9 report, the primary developer listed for 104 acres of land near Kingston Road and Highway 401 in Ajax is Buena Vista Development Corp. The report said the land was purchased by a numbered company in June, 2018, after Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives were elected for their first term.
Armand Reale, who is listed as the president of Buena Vista on LinkedIn, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that, contrary to Ms. Lysyk’s report, he is not the owner or developer of the land. He said he was “part of a group of consultants,” which included a planner and lawyers, to help the owners navigate the government’s process.
According to property records, the president of the numbered company that owns 775 Kingston Rd. E. in Ajax is listed as Yuchen Lu, who lives in Anhui province in China.
John Dong, a representative for Mr. Lu who contacted The Globe after being referred by Mr. Reale, said the matter is a misunderstanding and that his client was trying to partner with a developer to meet the government’s requirements. He said his client purchased the land almost six years ago as a business investment because of its location – close to a Costco and a Walmart – and “didn’t have any information” about properties being removed from the Greenbelt.
Property records indicate the land was purchased in 2018 for $15.8-million.
“My clients have no development experience and required a partner with the requisite experience to meet the government’s policy objective to have shovels in the ground in 2025,” Mr. Dong said in an e-mail.
“To accomplish this, we engaged in a process to find a joint venture partner with the experience necessary to help us develop the property. At no time was the property going to be sold outright.”
Mr. Dong said his client only learned of the government’s concerns Tuesday.
Asked for comment on Mr. Dong’s explanation, the Premier’s Office said the initial statement stands.
Mr. Ford said two parcels of land were listed for sale, but Mr. Dong said Mr. Lu only owns the parcel at 775 Kingston Rd. E. The property was listed in a real estate advertisement in The Globe on Aug. 8, pitched as “future residential or employment development land.” It did not include a price for the property.
The other property is not listed in online records. Ms. Lysyk’s report pointed to two other properties in Ajax, comprising a total of almost 25 acres, but contained no information about the owner or owners.
The RCMP said last week they are evaluating the government’s decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt to development after the Ontario Provincial Police referred the matter to the national force, citing a possible conflict of interest, without explaining what that conflict might be.
Mr. Ford previously told reporters he is confident nothing criminal took place.
Ryan Amato, the former chief of staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark, resigned last week after being thrust into the centre of the Greenbelt controversy. Ms. Lysyk’s report concluded that he led an internal government project to select the lands for development. Mr. Amato said in his resignation letter that he has been unfairly depicted and had acted appropriately.
According to Ms. Lysyk’s report, Mr. Amato presented the non-partisan “Greenbelt Project Team” with five USB keys containing information about proposed sites for removal from the Greenbelt, including the Ajax properties, but he could not recall how he received information about the sites.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said Tuesday that Mr. Ford’s government is changing its tune “simply because they got caught.” She reiterated her party’s calls for the government to recall the legislature to restore the lands to the Greenbelt and for the Premier to fire Mr. Clark.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers