The Ontario government is reversing its decision to force a list of municipalities to extend their urban boundaries and earmark thousands of extra hectares of farmland for potential development, making another retreat amid an RCMP probe of its scrapped plan to build housing on the province’s protected Greenbelt.
At issue are swaths of rural land – outside the environmentally sensitive Greenbelt – that the government unilaterally ordered municipalities to include inside their urban boundaries in top-down rewrites of their official plans, the detailed documents that outline what gets built and where.
According to a Globe and Mail tally, in just the Greater Golden Horseshoe region that arcs around Toronto, the province’s imposed changes designated an extra 11,127 hectares of countryside for potential development – about 14,000 football fields, or an area larger than Richmond Hill, Ont.
That dwarfs the 3,000 hectares involved in the government’s Greenbelt plan, which is being probed by the RCMP. An Auditor-General’s report concluded those Greenbelt lands were chosen in a “biased” process that favoured a small group of developers who stood to benefit from a potential $8.3-billion windfall in boosted property values. The Official Opposition NDP has asked the Auditor-General to launch a similar probe of the urban boundary expansions.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced the latest reversal on Monday, saying it was needed to rebuild “public trust.”
He said he would introduce legislation as soon has he can to reverse the decisions the government imposed on official plans submitted by Barrie, Belleville, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa and Peterborough, as well as the regions of Halton, Niagara, Peel, Waterloo, York and Wellington County. Anywhere construction has already started would be exempt, he said. Municipalities will have 45 days to submit any further amendments they would like to make to their own plans.
His predecessor, Steve Clark, who resigned last month amid the Greenbelt scandal, made the first batch of provincial changes to urban boundaries in several revised municipal official plans last November, on the same day he unveiled a surprise, promise-breaking plan to carve out land from the Greenbelt, which encircles Toronto, for housing development.
Opposition critics have said the urban boundary process resembled the government’s now-rescinded Greenbelt move. Both involved unilateral, site-specific provincial decisions that followed meetings between ministers’ senior staff and developers or their representatives and ended up benefiting landowners with links to the governing Progressive Conservatives of Premier Doug Ford.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr. Calandra said he was scrapping the altered official plans because of the overinvolvement of the political staff working for his predecessor.
“In some instances I just think there was too much involvement from the minister’s office, individuals working in the minister’s office,” Mr. Calandra told reporters.
The report of the Integrity Commissioner on the Greenbelt, which prompted Mr. Clark’s resignation last month, said the same political staff behind the Greenbelt changes had also met with developers or their representatives to discuss plots of land they wanted included inside urban boundaries. Some of the meetings occurred in October, 2022, just weeks before the first batch of official plan changes was announced.
The chief-of-staff identified as the driving force in what the commissioner called a “chaotic” Greenbelt process, Ryan Amato, was also in charge of the urban boundary process. The report also details meetings between developer representatives and Kirsten Jensen, Mr. Clark’s deputy chief of staff, where official plan changes were discussed. Both have since left their jobs.
An internal government briefing note on a second batch of imposed boundary changes released in April had warned that plots added into Waterloo’s urban boundary at the behest of “third parties,” such as landowners whose requests had been turned down by regional planners, would be controversial.
In both Hamilton and Halton Region, the provincial government overruled municipal councils that had chosen not to expand their urban boundaries at all. Both had instead voted to build more dense housing within existing built-up areas in order to preserve farmland and contain suburban sprawl.
“This is a big victory for our city and for the protection of Hamilton farmland,” Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath, the former leader of the Opposition NDP at Queen’s Park, said in a statement.
Jane Fogal, a regional councillor in Halton, west of Toronto, said she was “ecstatic” the province has abandoned its override of the region’s plan, which would have resulted in the loss of 10 per cent of Halton’s total prime agricultural area.
“I had no idea that they would back off this fast,” she said in an interview.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, with whom Mr. Calandra said he had spoken about the issue, also welcomed the minister’s move in an e-mailed statement.
Mr. Calandra said his ministry would work with municipalities to address costs they have incurred as a result of the about-face on their official plans. He also reversed comments he made last week and said he would consider financial demands from two municipalities, Pickering and Grimsby, who say they are out-of-pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars for planning work done on Greenbelt land now set to return to protection.
The minister also said he was reviewing the use of what are known as ministerial zoning orders, which the government has used frequently to override local processes and fast-track developers’ projects. The Auditor-General has also said the orders would be subject to a new review.
The province’s unilateral urban boundary additions came on top of extra land included in official plans by some municipalities themselves, made necessary by provincial changes to the process. Ontario called for new official plans to earmark enough land for growth until 2051, a decade later than the previous 2041 time horizon, and imposed altered criteria, including looser rules on population density. This meant many municipalities were set to designate much more rural land for development all on their own, even before the minister’s boundary changes.