Toronto

Doug Ford government held talks with PC donor on removing Greenbelt land

The Ontario government spent nearly a year in talks with a developer about a pitch to build housing in the province's Greenbelt, despite Premier Doug Ford's promise not to touch the protected area, CBC News has learned.

'The file is now closed,' says municipal affairs minister after inquiry from CBC News

The property in Vaughan is protected under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, forming part of Ontario's Greenbelt. (CBC)

The Ontario government spent nearly a year in talks with a developer about a pitch to build housing in the province's Greenbelt, despite Premier Doug Ford's promise not to touch the protected area, CBC News has learned.

The discussions involved a 60-hectare property in the northeastern corner of Vaughan. The land is owned by a family whose members have donated more than $100,000 to the Progressive Conservative party in recent years, including to Ford's 2018 leadership bid. 

The land is currently covered by the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, legislation that protects a zone across the northern fringes of the Greater Toronto Area, forming part of the province's Greenbelt.

Documents obtained by CBC News show that shortly after Ford took power, landowner Lucia Milani of Rizmi Holdings approached the provincial government with the aim of getting the property's protected status lifted. 

Last November, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark directed a ministry official to "facilitate a discussion between the City of Vaughan and Rizmi Holdings" regarding the property. 

The Greenbelt is a range of protected wetland, forest and farmland ringing the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. (Friends of the Greenbelt)

"Rizmi has advised that they will seek residential uses ... of their land holdings," says a briefing document the ministry official prepared for Clark last December.

CBC News tried to contact Rizmi Holdings through Milani's son, developer Cam Milani, for comment, but did not receive a response to phone and email messages.

In a statement provided to CBC News on Friday, Clark said the discussions lasted "nearly a year" and were aimed at reaching an agreement in which "the majority of land and natural heritage features" remain protected.

He said the ministry official could not facilitate such a deal. 

"The file is now closed," said Clark. "My commitment to protecting the Greenbelt has not changed." 

Tim Gray, executive director of the group Environmental Defence, reviewed the government documents and said they indicate the Ford government was "moving to allow this land to be removed from the Greenbelt."

Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence. (CBC)

The government was "under no obligation whatsoever" to take any action on the developer's request, said Gray in an interview with CBC News. 

"They should have said 'Go away, it's a protected natural area,'" said Gray. "Now is the time to stop the process, make it very clear to the developer that this land is going to stay protected within the Greenbelt and it will not become a subdivision." 

The Greenbelt has been a thorny issue for Ford since he stepped into provincial politics last year.

A video emerged just before the 2018 election campaign in which Ford told a group of business people that his government would open a "big chunk" of the Greenbelt for development. After initially defending the idea, Ford backtracked and promised he "won't touch the Greenbelt." 

Then last December, the Ford government brought in legislation to pave the way for companies to build on Greenbelt land provided their facilities created jobs. A few weeks later, the government scrapped those provisions from its bill. 

Rob Kenedy is president of the Mackenzie Ridge Ratepayers Association, the local neighbourhood group in Vaughan. (CBC)

The government's move to talk with the developer about removing the land from the Greenbelt without informing the public was "shady," says the head of a local neighbourhood group. 

"This is underhanded, it's sneaky and it's dishonest," said Rob Kenedy, president of the Mackenzie Ridge Ratepayers' Association.

Removing the property's protected status would have set a precedent throughout the Greenbelt, Kenedy said in an interview. 

"It's a domino effect for other developers," he said. "As soon as you allow these kind of sweetheart backdoor deals then everybody else wants the same thing." 

Most of the 60 hectares the developer wanted the Ford government to remove from the Greenbelt is classed as natural core, the highest designation under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act. (CBC)

The land, which runs east from the intersection of Dufferin Street and Kirby Road to the boundary between Vaughan and Richmond Hill, is part of a 100-hectare parcel that has been in dispute for the better part of two decades, when the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act became law. 

In 2015, at the request of both the City of Vaughan and the landowner, the then-Liberal government approved an exemption to pave the way for development on about 40 hectares that had been used as a gravel pit.

The 60 hectares the developer wanted the Ford government to remove from the Greenbelt is immediately north. Most of the property is classed as "natural core," the highest designation under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act. 

"It's like going through Algonquin Park," said Kenedy, who has hiked in the property with the owner. "It's a beautiful piece of land, tall trees, it's stunning."  

"It's one of the last remaining intact forests on the north end of Richmond Hill," said Gray. "There's very few of those left in the Greater Toronto Area." 

Elections Ontario records show the Milani family and their companies have made frequent donations to the PCs.

  • Lucia and Cam Milani each gave the maximum allowed ($1,200) to the leadership candidacies of both Ford and Christine Elliott in 2018.
  • In 2016, before corporate political donations were banned in Ontario, Milani Holdings gave the PC party $9,975, the maximum annual donation allowed at the time. 
  • Rizmi Holdings gave $20,000 to Patrick Brown's successful 2015 leadership bid, as did another company controlled by the Milani family, Bushland Heights Ltd.
  • Between 2014 and 2016, a company controlled by Cam Milani, 1714486 Ontario Ltd., donated $61,125 to the PC party, its candidates, leadership contestants and constituency associations. 
  • Other donations to the PCs since 2014 from Lucia Milani, her children Cam, Lucrezia and Tiziana, and their companies total more than $36,000. 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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