The Ontario government is backtracking on its latest proposed incursion into the Greenbelt, reversing a plan to allow development in an area northwest of Toronto amid increasing scrutiny, including a police review, of carveouts from different parts of the protected area announced late last year.
The province initially said it plans to use a special zoning order to allocate more property to prominent developers for a housing project in Caledon. The proposal called for expanding the boundaries for an existing development near the proposed Highway 413 interchange called the Mayfield West Phase 2 lands, including portions in the protected Greenbelt that encircles the Greater Toronto Area.
However, just hours before the town of Caledon held a public meeting on Thursday evening to discuss the plan, a government spokesperson said the proposal would no longer include land in the Greenbelt.
The abrupt change comes as Premier Doug Ford faces scrutiny for allowing development on 3,000 hectares of the Greenbelt, breaking a promise to permanently protect farmland, forests and wetlands around the Greater Toronto Area. The province’s Auditor-General concluded in a report this month that a government decision to open parts of the Greenbelt to housing construction favoured a handful of developers and handed them a potential $8-billion windfall.
The RCMP said this week that the Ontario Provincial Police requested that they investigate “irregularities in the disposition of the Greenbelt surrounding Toronto.”
The plan for Caledon was in the works before Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk released her report on Aug. 9. The government notified the Town of Caledon on July 21 that it planned to expand the boundaries for an existing neighbouring housing project through a proposed revision to an existing minister’s zoning order (MZO), a frequently used tool that allows property developers to bypass local planning processes.
The developers who own the property drafted the revised MZO, not bureaucrats in the Housing Minister’s office.
The proposed development contained 141 hectares of land, including 41 hectares in the Greenbelt, owned by members of the Cortellucci family, wealthy home builders and philanthropists. Companies controlled by Nick Cortellucci bought parcels of land in the area for $77.3-million between December, 2002, and December, 2014, property records show.
Chris Poulos, a spokesperson for Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the proposal no longer includes protected lands located within the Greenbelt.
“Through the consultation process it was brought to our attention that the amendment – as submitted by the proponent – contained a section of lands located within the Greenbelt.”
Mr. Poulos confirmed that the proponent refers to the owner of the properties. Nick Cortellucci’s Brookvalley Project Management Inc. owns the properties, records show.
The revelation that the government’s proposed zoning order, which was written by developers and included amendments to the province’s Planning Act, is further evidence of their outsized influence in Mr. Ford’s government, critics said.
“They see their role as working for developers and not for the people of Ontario,” said Jeff Burch, a New Democrat MPP.
When asked on Friday if he was giving too much power to developers, Mr. Ford evaded the question. “I don’t give two hoots about developers,” he told reporters. “I care about hard-working people who can’t afford to pay rent, they can’t afford to buy a home. That’s what I care about.”
The proposed zoning order as originally drafted would not have opened the land in the Greenbelt to housing construction. It would, however, have allowed that land to be used for such things as a cemetery, a public park, recreation, transportation and utilities, according to the proposed zoning order sent to the town of Caledon.
“This kind of move is a threat to the Greenbelt,” said Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at Environmental Defence. Speaking before the province changed course, he described the proposed MZO, which would broaden the uses for land that largely is agricultural, as a “backdoor strategy” to erode protections in an environmentally sensitive region.
The Town of Caledon noted in its announcement for Thursday’s public meeting that it did not request the MZO from the province. Even with the Greenbelt portions removed, the town’s planning officials, many councillors and residents are not happy.
Caledon’s official plan, pending adoption by council, states that new communities will be designed with amenities such as institutional and community facilities, museums, historic sites, cultural centres, theatres and retail all within walking distance.
“The proposed plan does not reflect this,” the town said in its agenda for the meeting. The patchwork of acquired lands will lead to “incomplete communities and sprawl.”
“It’s not good for the people of Caledon. It’s not good for us as taxpayers,” said Cheryl Connors, one of several Caledon residents who spoke at the meeting.
MZOs allow the province to overrule local planning authorities. There is no mechanism to appeal MZOs, nor is there a requirement for the province to obtain agreement from a lower level of government when imposing them.
With reports from Stephanie Chambers and Laura Stone