Ontario government tables bill to return lands it removed back to Greenbelt
Housing minister says province made a 'mistake,' hoping to move forward, but RCMP probe still looms
Ontario's housing minister introduced legislation Monday to return land from Ontario's protected Greenbelt that his government had previously removed for housing.
The bill, tabled by Ford's Progressive Conservative government, reverses its 2022 move to give the owners of certain Greenbelt properties the right to build housing, boosting their land values by an amount the auditor general pegged at $8.3 billion.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra introduced the bill in Queen's Park on Monday.
"We want to make progress on building 1.5 million homes but ultimately this was not how the people of the province of Ontario wanted us to do that," Calandra said at a news conference.
"We are listening. We are ensuring that going forward any process with respect to the Greenbelt is done in the most public and open fashion."
The Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act would restore all properties that were redesignated or removed from the Greenbelt and the Oak Ridges Moraine areas in 2022.
Calandra, who took over the file after Steve Clark resigned last month, says the bill will also codify the boundaries of the Greenbelt in law. That means that any future changes would have to go through the legislature, and could not just be done by regulation — as the Tories did last year.
"We made a mistake," Calandra said after tabling the bill.
"I'm acknowledging that mistake. It was a process that could not be supported. It was a process that took us off of what we have been trying to do for the last number of years, which is make it easier to build homes for people, make it more affordable. We're moving in the direction of refocusing and getting back on track."
He has also said that the province will not compensate developers and that he had put language around that into draft legislation.
WATCH | Calandra asked if legislation will appease voters:
Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the bill is a victory for everyone who opposed the Greenbelt land swap.
"Today is significant for every citizen, environmentalist, housing advocate and farmer who stood up to the Conservatives' dirty Greenbelt Grab. We came together, pushed back, and we won," Stiles said in a statement.
"The Ford Conservatives' corruption scandal has set Ontario back years on building the homes our province so desperately need," she said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said while the piece of legislation looks "supportable," there are major issues continuing to plague the Ford government.
"The greenbelt's the tip of the iceberg. It's MZOs, it's urban boundaries, it's Highway 413, it's Ontario Place," he said at a news conference Monday.
Meanwhile, Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner says his party will push for strong protections on the Greenbelt to protect the land from any future development.
"The more stronger protections we can put on the Greenbelt, the more we can ensure something like this doesn't happen in the future."
Legislation introduced days after RCMP probe announced
The premier announced the reversal on Sept. 21, apologizing for breaking his promise not to touch the Greenbelt.
The PCs hoped the U-turn would put an end to the controversy. Those hopes have been dampened by new developments that suggest Ford's push to open up land for housing will remain in the spotlight for months, if not years:
The RCMP announced a specialized unit that handles politically sensitive allegations such as corruption and breach of trust has launched an investigation into the Greenbelt land removals.
The auditor general's office confirmed it will probe the government's ramped-up use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) to override public consultation on changes to land use.
The government's expansions of the urban boundaries of Hamilton and Ottawa face growing scrutiny, as the moves opened the door to development on select parcels of previously rural land against the wishes of both city councils.
WATCH | RCMP's 'Sensitive & International Investigations Unit' to probe Greenbelt swap:
Mitch Heimpel, a former senior political staffer for the PCs, now director of campaigns and government relations with Enterprise Canada, a public affairs firm, says the controversy has left little room for public attention to the government's progress on any other topic.
"The government would probably prefer to be talking about anything else at this particular point," he said.
"It's just hard to get the message out when you're dealing with a constant issues-management fire like where they are on the Greenbelt," Heimpel said in an interview with CBC News.
Monday's bill is part of the government's efforts to put out that political fire.
The government doesn't actually need to bring in legislation to return the land to the Greenbelt. The removals last November were made through a cabinet decision, so the government could make the reversal happen simply by rescinding that cabinet order.
Instead, Calandra has said the bill tabled Monday will strengthen protection of the Greenbelt by defining its boundaries in law.
WATCH | Ford government changed Ottawa's boundaries to make this land part of city:
It's against Ontario law for any government to reduce the total land area of the Greenbelt under the current terms of the Greenbelt Act, introduced in 2005 by the then-Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty.
That does allow for government to remove parcels of land from the Greenbelt, so long as other parcels of equal or greater size are added.
The PCs voted down a bill introduced by the Ontario NDP in September that would have reversed the Greenbelt removals.
On Monday, Ford and his PCs face question period for the first time since the RCMP announced its investigation, as the Legislature was on a scheduled break for the week of Thanksgiving.
"Until we know what the RCMP is investigating, which we do not at the present moment ... it's wildly inappropriate to speculate," said Heimpel.
Still, he acknowledges that the probe has the potential to distract the government from its own agenda.
"The government intends to comply fully with the investigation, but they will be devoting time to doing that where they would otherwise be doing government business," Heimpel said.
With files from Mike Crawley and The Canadian Press