The Ontario government has introduced a promised bill that revokes its decision to allow housing construction on parts of the province’s environmentally sensitive Greenbelt, as it tries to move on from a controversy that is still subject to a police investigation.
In addition to restoring the 15 properties the government had removed from the protected area last year, the bill introduced on Monday would also formally enshrine the Greenbelt’s boundaries in legislation and strengthen provisions meant to block lawsuits from landowners.
The issue has dogged the Progressive Conservative government for months, after the province’s Auditor-General concluded in August that a “biased” process had favoured a select group of developers who stood to gain a potential windfall of $8.3-billion in increased property values. Two cabinet ministers and three senior political aides resigned amid the controversy.
The bill to reverse course was originally promised by Premier Doug Ford last month, when he admitted that his plan to carve out 3,000 hectares from the 800,000-hectare Greenbelt that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area was a mistake.
The new draft legislation would also require any future changes of the Greenbelt’s boundaries to go through the legislature. Currently, the government can redraw the Greenbelt without a vote, by issuing regulations.
In addition, the bill would strengthen provisions already in the Greenbelt Act to protect the government from legal action. The proposed language would bar any cause of action based on the legislation, amendments to it or any regulation issued, and would cover “any representation or conduct by current or former employees, officers or agents” of the Ontario government, as well as current or former members of cabinet. It also shields the province’s land and development facilitators, who had been negotiating with the owners of the properties removed from the Greenbelt, from litigation.
It also revives the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, an extra layer of protection that covered the single largest area of Greenbelt the government had designated for housing, east of Toronto.
Speaking to reporters, Paul Calandra, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, acknowledged the Greenbelt affair had distracted from the government’s other efforts to speed up housing construction.
“What it is, is a reflection of the fact that we made a mistake. I’m acknowledging that mistake,” Mr. Calandra said. “It was a process that could not be supported.”
A comprehensive review of the entire Greenbelt announced before the government had committed to restoring the land it had removed would still go ahead, he added.
But Mr. Calandra said it would “be led by impartial, non-partisan experts in conservation, agriculture and environmentalism” and would involve municipalities and Indigenous groups. The planned review would be submitted to the Auditor-General for a green light, he said.
Last month, Mr. Ford had said that hundreds of other requests for Greenbelt land removals would be considered in the review. Mr. Calandra said Monday that would be up to the review panel.
Earlier on Monday, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives faced Question Period for the first time since the RCMP confirmed it had launched a criminal probe into the development plans. But the Premier was not in the legislature, leaving Mr. Calandra to deflect the Official Opposition NDP’s questions on the issue.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the government was “mired in scandal” and that Mr. Ford had broken his promise to end cronyism in government.
“How can the people of this province trust their government when it’s under active criminal investigation?” she said in the legislature.
In addition to the Auditor-General’s findings in August, Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner concluded in a separate investigation that then-housing minister Steve Clark had violated the rules that govern MPPs for failing to oversee his now-departed chief-of-staff, Ryan Amato. Mr. Amato, the commissioner found, drove a “chaotic” process to choose the lands removed from the Greenbelt, accepting documents suggesting properties from prominent developers at an industry banquet.
Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake had recommended that the legislature issue a reprimand for Mr. Clark, who resigned from cabinet but remains a PC MPP. Mr. Calandra said the government had tabled a motion asking for unanimous consent for such a reprimand but that the NDP rejected it, asking for a debate.
With a report from Laura Stone