What you need to know about the Greenbelt as MPPs return to Queen’s Park
While MPPs were on their summer break, two scathing reports were released detailing a lack of supervision, transparency and leadership when it came to the development of the Greenbelt.
The reports suggested that certain developers with ties to the housing ministry were given an unfair advantage throughout the process.
The backlash following this revelation resulted in resignations, a cabinet shuffle and ultimately, the province’s reversal of its decision.
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Here is what you need to know about the Greenbelt as the fall session at Queen’s Park begins:
HOW DID THIS ALL START?
In November 2022, the Doug Ford government announced it would be removing 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt and adding an additional 9,400 acres of land elsewhere. The majority of the land added to the Greenbelt was already protected under other means.
The announcement came as a surprise to opposition parties and Ontario residents, as the premier had previously promised not to touch the protected land.
Since then, media reports have suggested that some developers who purchased land before November may have been tipped off about the decision.
WHAT IS THE GREENBELT?
The Greenbelt is about two-million acres worth of protected greenspace throughout Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe, including the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine. It includes farmland, forests, wetland and multiple river systems.
A hiker starts on a high graded hill climb at the Rouge Urban National Park, in Toronto on June 15, 2021. Ontario is proposing to remove land from the Greenbelt, an area created to protect environmentally sensitive lands from development, in order to build at least 50,000 new homes, while adding new land to it elsewhere. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giordano Ciampini
It was established in 2005 to help manage urban sprawl, ensuring natural heritage and water resource systems are permanently protected.
WHY WAS LAND REMOVED FROM THE GREENBELT?
The government said the decision was necessary as part of the Progressive Conservatives’ pledge to build 1.5 million homes in 10 years.
It all began in June 2022, when the Premier’s Office gave then-Housing Minister Steve Clark a mandate letter that said his office should “complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt” that fall.
It also asked that a compressive plan be created to expand and protect the Greenbelt.
Over the summer, the integrity commissioner found Clark’s office interpreted this request as direction to develop and implement policy rather quickly after the Progressive Conservatives were re-elected.
Clark’s Chief of Staff at the time, Ryan Amato, was told to look into it.
However, detailed reports released over the summer show that Amato took meetings, spoke with developers and put forward a policy that would see 15 sites ultimately removed from the protected land without much supervision.
HOW WAS THE LAND CHOSEN?
The province’s auditor general and the integrity commissioner found in their reviews that a lack of supervision and leadership led to certain developers with ties to the housing ministry gaining an advantage in the selection process.
According to the auditor general, 14 of the 15 sites chosen for development were hand-picked by Amato.
The remaining site was proposed by a six-person team of public servants tasked with assessing land sites for possible removal.
A map provided by the Ontario government shows what areas of the greenbelt will be removed and added.
According to the report, Amato altered criteria for land removal when the majority of the sites would not be approved within those parameters and implemented a three-week timeline for the assessment.
About 92 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was requested by developers the chief of staff dined with at a Sept. 14, 2022 Building and Land Development Association’s Chair’s dinner.
The auditor general found that Amato accepted packages from developers at the dinner with information about Greenbelt sites.
The chief of staff told the auditor general that he did not immediately open them, and that instead he added them to a stack of packages on his desk from other developers and their representatives for review. However, the report notes the developers “stood to significantly benefit financially by having received preferential treatment through the use of a biased process that was non-transparent to the public.”
The final list of 15 sites was whittled down from a list of 22 locations–despite hundreds of land removal applications.
Of those, 21 were provided directly by Amato, the auditor general said.
WHO IS MR. X?
A character known as “Mr. X” was broadly discussed in the integrity commissioner’s report as a major player who helped connect developers with the housing minister’s chief of staff.
The unregistered lobbyist will be subject to a separate lobbying investigation by the integrity commissioner, and has not been officially identified by his office.
However, sources have told CTV News Toronto that Mr. X is likely former Clarington Mayor John Mutton.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford (right) and former Clarington mayor John Mutton (left).
According to the report, Mr. X was contracted to work on getting 86 acres of land north of Nash Road out of the Greenbelt.
Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake’s report said that “Mr. X” stood to gain a $1 million payday if the land was removed from the Greenbelt— something that could violate lobbyist rules that prohibit payment based on the results of lobbying.
The report suggests that Mutton had lunch with staff within the housing ministry, and had approached them to speak further at golf and Raptors games.
He also gifted at least two politicians $1,500 tickets to the PC Leader’s Dinner in March, records show.
Mutton has not responded to interview requests from CTV News Toronto.
WHAT WERE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THESE REPORTS?
Housing Minister Steve Clark, as well as his chief of staff, resigned as a result of the reports.
The Premier’s Office accepted Amato’s resignation weeks after the auditor general released her report. It also comes a little over a week after Ontario’s integrity commissioner confirmed they had received a request to investigate his handling of the file.
Clark put in his notice in early September after trying to ride out the fallout from the two reports.
In a letter posted to social media, Clark says the housing crisis “demands someone who is not a distraction from the important work that needs to be done.”
“Although my initial thought was that I could stay in this role and establish a proper process so that these mistakes don’t happen again, I realize that my presence will only cause a further distraction from the important work that needs to be done ad that I need to take accountability for what has transpired,” he wrote.
His resignation sparked a summer cabinet shuffle. Former Long-Term-Care Minister Paul Calandra has since been thrown into the hot seat as the new housing minister, while MPP Stan Cho will take over the long-term care file.
The integrity commissioner recommended that Clark be officially reprimanded for “failing to oversee the process by which lands in the Greenbelt were selected to development.”
This will occur within the first few days MPPs return to Queen’s Park, as the legislature is required to address the integrity commissioner’s report in 30 days. A reprimand has no physical consequences or penalties.
Weeks later, Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery Kaleed Rasheed resigned from his position and the PC caucus after records revealed contradicting accounts of a Las Vegas trip, investigated by the integrity commissioner.
The Premier’s Office confirmed his resignation in a short statement, adding however if the integrity commissioner clears Rasheed he would be given the chance to return to caucus.
“A new Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery will be named in the coming days,” the office added.
WHY DID FORD REVERSE THE GREENBELT DECISION?
After meeting with the Ontario PC caucus on Sept. 21, Ford apologized to Ontario for breaking his promise on the Greenbelt. The premier said all lands removed from the Greenbelt will be returned and he will work with affected developers on what to do next.
The selection process of what parcels of land would be removed from the Greenbelt left “too much room for some people to benefit over others,” according to Ford.
“It caused people to question our motives. As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made and won’t make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future,” the premier said.
WHAT IS THE RCMP DOING?
The RCMP is also probing the Ford government’s handling of the Ontario Greenbelt and deciding whether to launch an investigation.
In mid-August, the force said it would “review and assess the information received and will take appropriate action as deemed necessary.”
Officials added the probe was still in its infancy.
Ford told reporters last week he does not “get involved in any police investigation at all.”
“They have a job to do. I’m going to continue moving forward to build homes for the people of Ontario,” the premier added.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Ford could not yet provide any details about how much the reversal will cost, telling reporters the housing minister is currently “working through those details.” However, the premier promised to make that information known to the public when it is available.
As for whether or not legal action could be brought forward from developers, Ford said he “can’t predict the future.”
“My main goal is to work with the builders, because they are part of the solution,” the premier said. “I can’t determine what the builders are going to do.”
With files from CP24’s Codi Wilson
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