Ontario's two-week-old Liberal government faced its first major public embarrassment yesterday when Premier Dalton McGuinty was forced to drop a campaign promise to block construction of homes on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine.
Instead, Mr. McGuinty told reporters that the Liberal government had imposed a freeze on development on the moraine until Nov. 20 while it holds discussions with landowners on the future of the plans for 6,600 new homes.
"We're trying to make the best of a bad situation. The developers have, in fact, acquired some legally enforceable rights," he admitted.
This drew an attack from the Earthroots environmental group and its director, Josh Matlow, a former Liberal candidate. "The Liberals should not make backroom deals like those they criticize the former Tory government of making with developers."
The existence of the developers' rights cited by Mr. McGuinty is not a new development. An internal government document obtained by The Globe and Mail shows that throughout several years of negotiations to protect key parts of the moraine from development, the land in question was not included in the areas to be sheltered.
"The . . . lands were entirely designated as 'settlement' recognizing the 'urban' designation of the lands," according to the five-page review of the moraine protection process prepared earlier this year by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
The government's acceptance of plans to build homes on these lands -- known as the OPA 138 lands stating the number of the relevant Richmond Hill Official Plan Amendment -- had been a part of negotiations with developers, municipal officials and environmental interests since the mid-1990s, the review says.
When the moraine legislation was introduced on Nov. 1, 2001, three government news releases stated the land targeted by developers, about 8 per cent of the whole moraine, would be considered "settlement areas" where new homes could be constructed.
The legislation, the Oak Ridges Protection Act, excluded most of the 190,000-hectare moraine north of Toronto from urban development. Also on Nov. 1, 2001, the government published a draft of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan. It stated:
"The purpose of settlement areas, which cover 8 per cent of the Oak Ridges Moraine, is to focus and contain urban growth and to minimize the encroachment and impact of development on ecological and hydrological functions and hydrological features."
Despite the clear exclusion of a parcel of land, Mr. McGuinty and the Liberals insisted in their election platform that plans to build 6,600 homes on this land had been "secretly approved" by the Progressive Conservative government.
"We will stop their construction," the campaign platform pledged.
After the election, Mr. McGuinty went further in his comments to reporters.
"We sent out a very clear signal, it's been out there for a very long time now: We're committed to putting genuine protections to the Oak Ridges Moraine, and we've said we're not gong to allow the construction of those 6,600 homes," he said on Oct. 16, two weeks after his victory.
Yesterday, he blamed the past government for his plight. "The Tories entered into a bad deal. Bad for the moraine. It's bad for the environment. It's bad for the people of Ontario. We're trying to make the very best of a bad situation."
But the Earthroots group and Mr. Matlow did not accept the reversal in the Liberals' position.
"The Liberal government's 'temporary freeze' on the construction of homes on Oak Ridges Moraine lands in Richmond Hill will allow developers to continue clearing land, selling homes and possibly build the infrastructure needed for future development," it said.
Mr. Matlow, the man chosen by the Liberal Party to run against former premier Ernie Eves when he re-entered the legislature in May, 2002, challenged his former leader on the moraine issue.
"Dalton McGuinty promised a year and a half ago, during the provincial election, and after the Liberal victory, that he would stop the construction of the 6,600 homes in Richmond Hill. The Premier must now show Ontarians that it is his government that is in charge of Ontario, not the developers."
Mr. Matlow contended that in backing off his promise, Mr. McGuinty "is searching for a compromise resolution with both developers and some environmental organizations that would see some of the 6,600 houses built on the ecologically sensitive moraine."