Ford government favoured developers, Greenbelt land not needed for housing target: auditor general

A new report on the Greenbelt finds a small number of developers, who had access to the government as it decided to open up the land for housing, stand to gain $8 billion in a “biased process". Cynthia Mulligan reports.

By Meredith Bond and Patricia D'Cunha

The auditor general’s investigation into Ontario’s decision to open protected Greenbelt lands up to housing development found the process favoured developers with ties to the housing minister’s chief of staff and failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial risks and impacts.

In Bonnie Lysyk’s scathing report, which was released on Wednesday, she also found the selection of lands removed from the Greenbelt was “biased,” “seriously flawed,” and was “dismissive of effective land-use planning.”

The decision was also not necessary to meet the province’s housing target of 1.5 million homes, according to the report.

Lysyk launched a value-for-money probe in January after a joint request from the Ontario Liberals, NDP, and Green Party.

“The way the government assessed and selected lands for removal from and addition to the Greenbelt was not publicly transparent, objective or well-informed, and was inconsistent with the vision, goals and processes of the Greenbelt Plan,” the report read.

“Given the high level of public interest that any change to the Greenbelt’s boundary was expected to carry, the Housing Minister ought to have known the process used that would lead to the removal of land from the Greenbelt and ensure that Cabinet and the Premier were also made aware of these details.”

“All along, this government’s agenda has been to favour wealthy, elite insiders at the expense of everyday Ontarians. Now, we have a report that shows it – and the evidence is staggering,” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement. “And that, contrary to repeated claims otherwise, the housing minister’s political staff had near-complete control over the entire removal process.”

In response to the report, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he recognizes the process should have been better and they plan to implement some of the report’s recommendations, but the government will proceed with these developments “so long as our criteria and requirements are met.”

“Our government is choosing, as we continue to respond to the housing supply and affordability crisis, to keep moving,” said Ford.

When asked how he didn’t know about the process, Ford said, “I have trusted my ministers, I’ve trusted our caucus … At the end of the day, I take full responsibility for the process.”

Interim Liberal Party leader John Fraser called on Clark to step aside in light of the report. “There is no way on God’s green Earth that Minister Clark’s Chief of Staff acted without the Minister’s full knowledge or direction,” said MPP Fraser. “Ministers make decisions; their Chiefs of Staff implement them.”

NDP Leader Marit Stiles has also shared that Minister Clark should resign in light of the report.

Minister Clark said because of the severity of the housing crisis, they were required to act quickly in building and developing housing. “I acknowledge the recommendations from the Auditor General’s report indicate we need to make some changes. I respect that.”

The auditor general offered up 15 recommendations, including that the provincial government re-evaluate the decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries in light of her report.

“The Premier and the Minister of Housing have communicated to us that they were unaware that the pre-selection of lands for removal from the Greenbelt was biased, controlled and directed by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff … the government request that the Housing Ministry … re-evaluate the 2022 decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries.”

Ford said the government accepts “in principle” 14 of the 15 recommendations and would implement them. The recommendation they do not accept is re-evaluating that decision to re-evaluate the boundaries.

When asked whether he or his Chief of Staff would resign, Minister Clark would not answer the question.

At a news conference, Lysyk was asked whether the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) should launch an investigation into Greenbelt. She said it is up to the police force to decide.

“My understanding is that whatever happens in the future will be up to the OPP to decide if there is merit in looking at any situation further,” she said.

Lysyk said in her report that provincial government actions to open parts of the Greenbelt failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial risks and impacts. There was also little input from experts and affected parties and favoured certain developers/landowners.

“The exercise to change the Greenbelt boundaries in Fall 2022 cannot be described as a standard or defensible process. The truncated and highly restricted land selection exercise excluded substantive input from land-use planning experts in provincial ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, First Nations leaders, and the public while giving preferential treatment to certain developers with direct access to the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.”

Ontario’s Greenbelt is the largest in the world, with two-million acres running through the Golden Horseshoe. It was created almost 20 years ago by McGuinty’s Liberal government.

The Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff was appointed by the Premier’s Chief of Staff in July 2022. He was “given the responsibility by the Premier’s Office to direct a project to change the Green­belt’s boundary.” The entire process to unlock portions of the Greenbelt was conducted in three weeks.

RELATED: Original architect of the Ontario Greenbelt shares the impact of development

On Nov. 4, 2022, the provincial government said that 7,400 acres of land would be removed from the Greenbelt and converted into housing developments.

It was later revealed that some developers had bought parts of this land just weeks before the government’s announcement. Members of the government, including the housing minister, have previously denied tipping anyone off ahead of time.

In her report, the auditor general said 4,900 (67 per cent) of the approximately 7,400 acres removed from the Greenbelt are on two sites, whereby information was given by two developers to the Housing Minister Chief of Staff last September at an industry event.

“One of these developers subsequently provided information on the removal of three additional land sites, one of which related to a third developer. Overall, 92 per cent (6,800) of the approximately 7,400 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt related to five land sites involving three developers.”

The report also stated that the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff provided all but one of the sites that were ultimately removed from the Greenbelt, “at least nine of which came from requests made by a few select developers and their representatives, who contacted him personally.”

When asked about this information, Clark said, “There is a big difference between receiving information then advancing government policy.”

Lysyk’s investigation points out that the owners of the 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could “ultimately see more than an $8.3 billion increase to the value of their properties.”

She added during the press conference that the $8.3 billion figure was based on 2016 numbers, and the value is likely much higher now.

greenbeltreport-august9 by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

It also found political staff had “substantial control” over the Greenbelt land re-development and that not enough time was invested into assessing the lands.

“The Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff provided a small team of non-political public service staff in the Housing Ministry the criteria to be used in the selection process, directed the team to alter the criteria to facilitate the selection of many sites provided by the Chief of Staff, and imposed a three-week timeline and confidentiality provisions, limiting the team’s time and ability to assess the land sites and provide alternatives.”

The Greenbelt Project Team made up of six employees from the Housing Ministry, was required to sign confidentiality agreements as well.

“We also became aware of how non-elected political staff, and developers, and their lobbyists can undermine the technical and operational work of the non-political public service in provincial ministries and the work of municipalities and conservation authorities. We further concluded that fair, transparent and respectful consultation with the people of Ontario did not take place.”

The Chief of Staff also made the decision to drop the only criterion that considered environmental and agricultural factors after the Greenbelt Project Team determined most of the proposed sites did not meet that criterion.

The report found the boundary changes removed almost 1,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands from the Greenbelt.

According to the auditor general, the provincial government’s plan to increase housing did not require land to be removed from the Greenbelt.

“In fact, in late October 2022, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (Housing Ministry) had already allocated housing targets to regions to build 1.5 million homes before land sites were approved for removal from the Greenbelt.”

RELATED: Ford government could have sold rights to develop greenbelt for millions, experts say

Ford has noted that his government has added to the Greenbelt in a land swap to make up for the planned development. But the report found 2,400 of the added acres are areas typically already protected and largely undevelopable.

The Integrity Commissioner is also working on a report in relation to the Greenbelt. The timing of when it will be made public has not been released.

With files from CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan

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