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Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark answers questions after an announcement in the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Doug Ford’s government is looking at turning over parts of the protected Greenbelt area to developers, after promising repeatedly not to do so.

Steve Clark, the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, on Friday announced 30 days of consultation on the idea, which would see development on some areas of the Greenbelt in return for the protected zone growing in other spots. He said this could lead to 50,000 new homes.

The Greenbelt is about 2 million acres of protected land, established in 2005, in the Greater Toronto and Niagara areas. It was designed to protect farmland and environmental habitat while encouraging denser development by limiting sprawl.

Mr. Clark said that his government wanted to release up to 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt in areas that are close to existing communities and ready to be built on quickly. In return, 9,400 acres of land elsewhere would be added to the Greenbelt.

“It’s like trying to compensate for ripping someone’s throat out by grafting an extra leg onto them,” countered Phil Pothen, Ontario program manager at the advocacy group Environmental Defence.

He said the point of the Greenbelt was not to protect random pieces of land but to safeguard specific places that faced the threat of development.

“By opening up these 7,400 acres, the government has painted a target on every piece of [Greenbelt] land that some developer sees an interest in accessing,” Mr. Pothen warned.

Mr. Clark pitched the change to the Greenbelt as a way to get more homes built. His government recently launched sweeping changes to zoning and development approvals and the minister on Friday called the Greenbelt plan another step toward 1.5 million new homes over the next decade in the Greater Toronto Area.

“We need to, in the middle of a housing crisis, act decisively,” he said. “We know the pace of housing hasn’t kept pace with demand and we need to make some tough decisions.”

The move to open the Greenbelt flies in the face of promises the Premier has made not to interfere with these lands.

In the 2018 campaign, after being caught on tape talking about land swaps affecting the protected zone, Mr. Ford promised to “maintain the Greenbelt in its entirety.” And in 2020 he said in the legislature: “I have not touched the Greenbelt, we won’t touch the Greenbelt, we won’t build on the Greenbelt.”

Mr. Clark argued Friday that the situation has changed and, with increasing pressure on housing, they have to do more to open up land.

Housing advocates say there is plenty of undeveloped land not within the protected Greenbelt areas on which there could be built many more homes.

NDP interim leader Peter Tabuns says this Greenbelt proposal is rooted in “making the rich richer,” not in providing housing.

“He’s on an anti-environment crusade on behalf of his billionaire developer buddies,” Mr. Tabuns said in a statement. “Ford’s moves to tear up farmland and bulldoze wetlands have never been about housing.”

In his own statement, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner decried “the false choice” between housing and environment protection.

“It’s time to end expensive sprawl and to permanently protect our remaining farmland, watersheds and green space for present and future generations,” he said. “This is essential for our resiliency to a changing climate and economic prosperity.”

Edward McDonnell, the CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to promoting and sustaining these protected lands, warned that doing land swaps could risk undermining the integrity of the Greenbelt.

“You know, the idea of land being created equally is not the case,” he said.

“But more than that, there’s a danger with land swaps in terms of breaking up systems that are critical to the Greenbelt’s success. You know, water resource systems, natural systems, agricultural systems. And what’s made the Greenbelt really important to Ontario for a long time is the fact that it does protect these complete systems.”