Ontario government's Greenbelt land swap influenced by well-connected developers, AG finds
Developers could see an $8B increase to value of land now open for housing development, report finds
The Ontario government's process for choosing protected Greenbelt land to open up for housing development was heavily influenced by a small group of well-connected developers who now stand to make billions of dollars, the province's auditor general says.
In a widely-anticipated 95-page report released Wednesday, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk offered a damning assessment of how the province selected sites last year for removal from the Greenbelt — a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough that was meant to be off limits to development.
"Our review ... raises serious concerns about the exercises used, the way in which standard information gathering and decision protocols were sidelined and abandoned, and how changes to the Greenbelt were unnecessarily rushed through," Lysyk said at a news conference at Queen's Park on Wednesday.
"The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister's chief of staff."
You can read the full auditor general's report at the bottom of this story.
Lysyk found the selection process was largely controlled by Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff — not non-partisan public servants — and that many of the sites were chosen after specific suggestions from developers.
The process didn't consider the agricultural, environmental and financial impacts of the decision, and involved little input from planning experts or other stakeholders, including the general public and Indigenous communities, according to the report.
The revelations prompted the two main opposition parties — the NDP and the Liberals — to call for the housing minister's resignation.
"Ontarians deserve better than a government that enriches a select number of party donors at the expense of hard-working Ontarians," NDP Leader Marit Stiles said in a news release.
At a news conference later Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford acknowledged shortcomings with the selection process, but said his government would continue to do everything it can to address the province's housing crisis.
"We know there are areas for improvement as we move forward," Ford said. "We were moving fast. We could have had a better process."
Ford said his government would accept and implement 14 of 15 total recommendations Lysyk made in her report. The single recommendation it will not accept is to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse those decisions, he said.
AG launched report at request of opposition leaders
Ontario's Greenbelt was initially created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from falling victim to urban sprawl.
The Ford government removed approximately 2,995 hectares of land from the Greenbelt in December — while adding more land elsewhere — to build 50,000 homes. The government said the changes were part of its plan to build 1.5 million new homes in the next decade.
Shortly after the proposal was announced, media reporting, including by CBC Toronto, revealed that several well-established developers with ties to the Progressive Conservative government were among the owners of the land that was removed and that several of the properties were purchased in recent years when they were fully or partially off-limits to development.
Lysyk agreed to look into this decision in January at the request of all three opposition leaders, who questioned whether developers knew about it in advance.
The auditor general's report found that after the Conservatives won the June 2022 election in a landslide, Ford directed Clark in a mandate letter to "complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt."
The housing ministry provided Clark's chief of staff with two options: an overall review of the Greenbelt or the selection of specific sites, Lysyk wrote.
The audit revealed that Clark's chief of staff directed a small team of housing ministry bureaucrats in October 2022 that decided which sites would be removed. The work of the so-called "Greenbelt Project Team" was limited to three weeks and its members were sworn to confidentiality, according to the report.
Lysyk found it was Clark's chief of staff who identified 21 of the 22 sites the team considered. Ultimately, they settled on 15.
Lysyk didn't name Clark's chief of staff in the report, however, she later confirmed to reporters it is his current chief of staff. Ryan Amato is currently working in that role.
Ford and Clark both told Lysyk that they were unaware that the land chosen for removal was controlled by Amato.
12 of 15 parcels of land removed came from developer suggestions
Instead of finding that developers were tipped off in advance, Lysyk found it was the developers themselves who, in many cases, successfully lobbied to have specific sites they owned opened up for housing development.
"Many of these individuals had advocated for the removal in emails and in-person meetings within a few months prior to their removal," according to the report. "For example, one lawyer representing three housing developers emailed the chief of staff on Sept. 27 and 29, 2022, providing site specific details for the land they sought to develop."
According to a timeline of key events, two prominent housing developers approached Clark's chief of staff in September 2022 at a building industry event, and provided him with "packages" containing information on two sites in the Greenbelt — an area in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) in Pickering and a site in the Township of King that was purchased that very month for $80 million.
As CBC Toronto has reported, Silvio De Gasperis, president of the Tacc Group of companies, owns more than two dozen properties in the DRAP. Michael Rice, CEO of Rice Group, owns the King property. Both De Gasperis and Rice — who were not named in the report — fought the auditor general's summons' to answer questions about the land swap.
Shortly after the September event, one of the developers provided Clark's chief of staff with information related to three other sites.
"About 92 per cent of the land that was ultimately removed from the Greenbelt was requested to be removed by the developers the chief of staff dined with at [the event]," the report said.
Citing the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, which is responsible for calculating property values in Ontario, Lysyk estimates the landowners of the 15 sites that were removed could see their value increase by $8.3 billion.
Lysyk said the chief of staff's behaviour may have contravened political activity and conflict of interest rules.
"The Greenbelt exercise calls into question who, if anyone, was supervising the non-elected chief of staff as he personally directed the Greenbelt project team through most of October 2022," Lysyk said.
"In our view, the housing minister ought to have known the key details of such a high profile and politically sensitive government exercise, and ensure that Cabinet and the premier were also made fully aware."
Ford said he only learned of the land swap the day it went to cabinet for approval, while Clark said he learned of it the week prior.
Lysyk's audit also found that removing land from the Greenbelt was not needed to meet the government's housing target, as previously noted by the Ford government's hand-picked Housing Affordability Task Force. According to Lysyk, the government had already allocated the 1.5 million units to municipalities by October 2022 — one month before the government announced its controversial Greenbelt proposal.
The report says the boundary changes removed environmental protections for almost 404 hectares of woodlands and wetlands. On top of that, Ontario's agriculture ministry estimated that 76 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was being used for farming in 2022, and 83 per cent of the land removed is classified as "prime agricultural land" — the highest quality farmland in the province.
Ford says 'ends justify the means'
At Wednesday's news conference, Ford said the government moved so quickly because of the need to increase the province's housing supply to address the ongoing housing affordability crisis and keep up with Ontario's rapidly growing population.
He said housing built on the Greenbelt lands would house 150,000 people and bring community benefits like parks, roads and healthcare infrastructure that would be paid for by the landowners and builders.
Clark didn't directly answer reporters' questions when asked whether he would resign or if his chief of staff would keep his job.
"I appreciate the confidence the premier has in myself and my staff," Clark said. "I'm committed to ensuring the 14 recommendations will move forward and will move forward quickly."
You can read the full auditor general's report below.
With files from The Canadian Press