A controversial proposal to build a hospital on land the Ontario government now plans to return to the protected Greenbelt is dead, as an overcrowded health centre continues its search for a second site.
The property in King Township, north of Toronto, became a lightning rod for criticism of Premier Doug Ford’s bid to allow housing development in parts of the Greenbelt, an environmentally sensitive arc of farmland, forests and wetlands in the Greater Toronto Area.
The provincial government, which reversed its decision to open the Greenbelt last month, would not permit a hospital to be built on the King property, said a spokesperson for Housing Minister Paul Calandra.
“As the proposed site would be returned to the Greenbelt upon legislative changes coming into effect and given the fact that the land remains outside of the settlement area, a development of a healthcare facility on this property would not align with Greenbelt Plan policies,” Alexandru Cioban said in an e-mail last week.
Developer Michael Rice bought the sprawling $80-million Greenbelt property less than two months before the province revealed last November that it intended to remove protections from his land and 14 other sites for the construction of at least 50,000 homes. Mr. Rice had lobbied the government to allow development on his property.
Mr. Rice had agreed to provide a portion of his land for a second location of Southlake Regional Health Centre for a nominal fee before the province opened up the Greenbelt. The hospital said earlier this year it was evaluating the site as part of its selection process.
However, when asked by The Globe and Mail last week about the implications of the government’s Greenbelt reversal on its consideration of Mr. Rice’s land, a Southlake spokesperson said officials are still searching for a location.
“We have not yet secured a site and are continuing our efforts to find land to build a new Southlake to support the growing healthcare needs of northern York Region and southern Simcoe County,” Danae Theakston said in an e-mail.
Officials have said Southlake requires a second hospital on up to 40 hectares of land to relieve overcrowding at its current Newmarket facility. The province provided $5-million for expansion planning last year.
King Mayor Steve Pellegrini – who had asked Mr. Rice to donate land for the hospital and was a major proponent of the proposal – was unavailable to comment, spokesperson Andrea Gyarmati said. In an e-mail, she said it is up to Southlake and the provincial government to determine the location of the facility.
Mr. Rice, president and chief executive officer of the Rice Group, a retail, industrial and infrastructure development company, did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
King Township Councillor Debbie Schaefer welcomed news that a hospital will not be built on the site, saying the area’s countryside must be protected and developers discouraged from buying more farmland.
“I am very, very pleased. I’m happy,” she said in an interview. “One of the terrible consequences of this is it encourages real estate speculation.”
After facing intense backlash and the resignations of two cabinet ministers, Mr. Ford last month backed down on plans to develop parts of the Greenbelt, saying his government would restore protections on all 15 properties.
The reversal followed two reports from independent watchdogs concluding that the process for selecting properties was flawed.
Then-auditor-general Bonnie Lysyk said the government delivered certain developers a potential $8.3-billion windfall. Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, who found that then-housing minister Steve Clark broke ethics rules by failing to properly oversee the Greenbelt removals, said Mr. Rice was interested in the land donation idea in the summer of 2022 because of the possibility of spinoff projects.
Mr. Rice “anticipated they would be able to potentially develop medical buildings, a long-term care facility and other long-term assets on land that was in the Greenbelt and not necessarily available for other types of development,” Mr. Wake’s Aug. 30 report says.
Mr. Pellegrini, the King mayor, previously told The Globe that there were “never any deals” to support removing Mr. Rice’s land from the Greenbelt if he agreed to provide land for a hospital. Mr. Pellegrini said he believed the government could have located a hospital in the Greenbelt through a legislative amendment or ministerial zoning order.
Mr. Rice also told Mr. Wake he would not have agreed to donate his land for a hospital if he had known it was about to be removed from the Greenbelt, but was “committed” and “sticking to it,” the Integrity Commissioner’s report says.
Ms. Theakston, the Southlake spokesperson, declined to say whether Mr. Rice’s land was no longer under consideration because of the government’s Greenbelt reversal or because it did not meet requirements under the hospital’s site selection process.
The hospital began looking for land for a second branch in April, 2022, and has “evaluated more than 25 properties” on criteria such as size, transit accessibility and location, she said.