The Ontario Greenbelt, a large swath of protected land in southern Ontario, has been the centre of a lot of controversy over the past year.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he would open up parcels of land for development despite pledges to not touch the land in his 2018 election campaign. The announcement has sparked protests from environmentalists, agriculture advocates and land-use experts; revelations from developers with ties to the Ford government; a probe from Ontario’s auditor-general and integrity commissioner; and several resignations.
The twists and turns of this story had us wondering if Globe readers had questions about what’s going on with this land – so we asked, and yes, you definitely did. The Decibel host Menaka Raman-Wilms spoke with The Globe’s Ontario provincial politics reporter Jeff Gray to answer your burning Greenbelt questions. If you’d like to listen to the episode, you can find it on the podcast player of your choice using this link.
Editor’s note: After this interview, the Ontario government announced it is cancelling its plan to develop the Greenbelt.
What are the potential positive and negative facts and effects that would come from the Greenbelt opening up?
So the government, the premier and his new and old housing minister, the line they repeat is, we have a housing crisis. The government has this goal – it says we need to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. So they say that we can build 50,000 homes on the Greenbelt, on this land, which is a smaller portion of the larger Greenbelt. The Greenbelt is 800,000 hectares, we’re talking about 3,000 hectares.
Now, a few problems with that. One, is there are multiple, detailed expert reports that show that Ontario already has enough land earmarked for housing to meet its housing goals.
And once you show that you’re willing to open up the Greenbelt, land prices in the Greenbelt will also start to go up because speculators will buy more land thinking that two years from now, maybe we’ll get more land. And so that undermines the way this thing works.
How many of these removed properties interfere with wildlife corridors or key streams, rivers and aquifers?
The environmental impact – that has not been talked about as much – has been an issue with the largest chunk, which is, was called the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. It’s east of Toronto and Durham Region. Most of the land we’re talking about is actually in that area, and it was preserved for farming. But it is right next to the Rouge National Park, Federal National Park and Parks Canada and the federal Environment Minister have raised concerns and are doing studies about the impact of development on land right next door, and how that will affect the goals of the park to preserve wildlife.
The minister has actually threatened to block development if he thinks it will harm endangered species. I mean, the Greenbelt had three purposes really – to preserve farmland, contain sprawl, build more densely, and to protect the environmentally sensitive wildlife aquifers.
Were Ontario First Nations involved in the Greenbelt consultation process?
Not at all. The Auditor General’s report, released in August, raps the government’s knuckles for that. With the controversy rolling, the new housing minister and the premier have said “we’re going to review the entire Greenbelt.” The Greenbelt requires a 10-year review. They say that they will consult First Nations in that review. They also say that the review could see them take more land out of the Greenbelt. So they’re going through it all and naturally looking to double down on it.
Is it public land, and what’s the value?
Most of this land is owned by private landowners. I mean, there are some public lands in the Greenbelt. But the land we’re talking about, the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, is all owned by private individuals. In the 1970s, the Ontario government expropriated a whole bunch of land, and they wanted to build a community for the future. They also want to preserve a large chunk of it for farmland. They agreed to sell it back to the farmers, starting in 1999 and early 2000s, on the condition that the land was to be agricultural forever. This was even before the Greenbelt. It was sold it back at very low prices.
When land is zoned for agricultural, it’s worth a lot less than if it’s zoned for houses or factories. So that land, much of it, ended up in the hands of developers who also got it at low prices. But now, because it’s not Greenbelt anymore, and it’s not preserved for agriculture anymore, it’s worth way, way, way more.
What kind of housing is being planned for land extracted from the Greenbelt?
We don’t know. It will depend on each site. And the reason we don’t know is the plans are being drawn up behind closed doors with this arm of the provincial government, municipalities and the developers. The Ontario government promised complete communities. They’ve said that the developers will have to pay for a lot more of the infrastructure than they would normally pay for schools and roads. The new Minister of Housing has said that he’ll tell us when the deals are done, we’ll get to see those deals at the by the end of the year, he said.
Could the homes be built faster? We’re talking about farmers’ fields, so there’s no sewage or transit system, none of that, right?
That’s the whole problem with the way this was sold – we’re going to find spots on the Greenbelt that we can develop really fast. They’ve set aggressive timelines. They said: We’ve got to have significant progress on approvals by the end of this year and we’ve got to have shovels in the ground by the end of 2025.
So, the government believed that there were lands on the Greenbelt because developers told them they could do housing quickly. But as the Auditor General’s report has revealed, and the Integrity Commissioner’s report as well, the process was done so quickly.
The Auditor General report said Ryan Amato, former housing minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, handpicked all but one parcel of land that was ultimately removed from Greenbelt. Has possible communication between the premier’s staff and Mr. Amato been investigated?
The Auditor General’s report and the Integrity Commissioner report says they interviewed a whole bunch of witnesses. And this is what they’ve come up with – that, for the premier to not be involved in the details of it is one thing, and for the housing minister not to be involved in the details of this centerpiece policy, is another thing entirely. That’s why we ended up with Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark resigning when the Integrity Commissioner concluded that he had broken Queen’s Park’s ethics rules by failing to oversee this process.
Now that we have two reports identifying flaws in this process, is it not possible to reverse the transactions and halt all developments on these parcels of land for now?
Oh, it’s possible, and the opposition has asked for that. But the government has shown no indication they want to do that. The closest they’ve come to that is they promised is this review. I mean, nothing’s being built right now. We’re still in these closed-door talks to determine how much the developers are going to contribute to the infrastructure and what’s going to be built. The government has said even though they’re doing this review, they still want shovels in the ground on these plots of land by the end of 2025. But the Ontario government said if the review determines that some of this land should go back in the Greenbelt, they would put it back in.
This interview was taken from a transcript of The Decibel podcast, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.