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Farms dot the landscape below the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment in Halton Region.

Environmentalists warn that legislation introduced by the Ontario government this week would allow for development inside the province’s vast Greenbelt – despite an explicit election promise from Premier Doug Ford to leave the protected lands alone.

Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservative government introduced Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, on Thursday at Queen’s Park before the legislature wrapped up proceedings until February. It’s a grab bag of amendments to dozens of pieces of legislation that the government says would scrap red tape and create jobs.

But environmentalists have seized on one section of the proposed legislation that would allow municipalities to apply to the province for permission to pass what the bill calls “open-for-business” bylaws meant to attract employers by speeding up approvals for the building of offices or factories.

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With permission from only the Minister of Municipal Affairs, such developments could be exempt from a list of laws, including sections of the Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Protection Act, the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and the Greenbelt Act.

Tim Gray, executive director of the group Environmental Defence, warns the move would immediately enrich land speculators sitting on plots inside Southern Ontario’s 7,200-square-kilometre Greenbelt, while completely undermining the swath of protected land that had been supported by both Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments. He also says the changes could mean more sprawling residential and mixed-use development.

“As soon as you decide to start doing Swiss cheese with the Greenbelt, and allowing development into it, you don’t have the Greenbelt any more,” Mr. Gray said. “You have some joke on a map.”

Mr. Gray warns the PC government should expect a “huge local constituency-level backlash,” as polls suggest the Greenbelt is extremely popular not just across Ontario but also in many areas that elected PC MPPs in or close to the Greenbelt itself.

In an e-mailed statement, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the goal of the legislation was to allow municipalities to speed up approvals for businesses looking for new sites. But he also says that “we remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the Greenbelt for future generations.”

The Minister’s spokeswoman, Julie O’Driscoll, declined to clarify when asked why the proposed bill still contemplates exemptions to the Greenbelt Act. She said the government would not support proposals from municipalities “in contrast with” its commitment to protect the Greenbelt.

In May, during the provincial election campaign, the Liberals released a video of Mr. Ford saying he would hand over a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt to developers, forcing the PC Leader to backtrack. After at first pledging to replace any Greenbelt land turned over to developers, Mr. Ford later issued what appeared to be an ironclad promise: “The people have spoken − we won’t touch the Greenbelt.”

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NDP MPP Peter Tabuns says Bill 66 is a blatant broken promise: “When it comes to the Greenbelt, it seems very clear that all the commitments that were made by Doug Ford during the election have just gone out the window.”

Other provisions packed into the bill would loosen or toss out rules regulating daycares and toxic substances.

Marianne Meed Ward, the Mayor of Burlington, Ont., west of Toronto, issued a statement on Friday pledging to continue to protect the Greenbelt: “We stand firm in our commitment to protecting our greenbelt from development and protecting our farm families and rural agricultural economy … I do not see Burlington using this legislation, if it is passed.”

David Crombie, the former Toronto mayor and former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who heads Ontario’s Greenbelt Council, an advisory body, points out that any incursion into the Greenbelt would still require ministerial approval. He says he still takes Mr. Ford at his word.

“All I know is that the Premier, on at least a couple of occasions now, has said that he supports the integrity of the Greenbelt,” Mr. Crombie said in an interview. “… So far as I know, that’s where it is, and I simply take the Premier and his government at their word.”

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