Some developers received preferential treatment in opening up of Greenbelt, report finds
Published Wednesday, August 9, 2023 5:09AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, August 9, 2023 5:18PM EDT
The Ontario government’s decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt for housing “favoured certain developers,” lacked transparency and failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial impacts, a scathing report by the province’s auditor general has suggested.
Of the 7,400 acres of land removed from the Greenbelt, the report found that 92 per cent could be tied to three developers with direct access to the housing ministry.
The findings were released in a “Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt” by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk on Wednesday.
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The report also found that 14 of the 15 sites were proposed directly by Housing Minister Steve Clark’s Chief of Staff Ryan Amato.
The remaining site was proposed by a six-person team of public servants tasked with assessing land sites for possible removal.
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 on the assessment. The team, the report found, had to operate under strict confidentiality terms that prevented them from contacting partnering ministries as well as municipalities and conservation authorities.
Ninety-three confidentiality agreements across multiple ministries were signed over the course of the project, the report found.
“We could have had a better process,” Premier Doug Ford told reporters at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “As premier, the buck stops with me.”
Opposition parties have called for Clark’s resignation as a result of the report, with NDP Leader Marit Stiles going so far as to say it “smells of corruption.”
Clark reiterated Wednesday he has Ford’s support and seemed to indicate that neither he, nor his chief of staff, will be leaving their positions.
The investigation into the Doug Ford government’s decision to remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt for development began in January after a joint request from all three of the province’s opposition leaders.
The decision was first announced in November 2022, years after Premier Ford promised not to touch the protected land. The argument at the time was that it was necessary as part of its pledge to build 1.5 million homes in 10 years.
The goal was to build at least 50,000 homes on the Greenbelt land, with construction beginning no later than 2025.
However it was soon revealed several large developers had purchased Greenbelt land since the Ford government was first elected in 2018 before the announcement had been made. At least one investment was made in September 2022, a month before the government revealed the land was among 15 sites being opened up for development.
Opposition leaders and advocacy groups have claimed that developers were tipped off and given advance notice of the government’s plans.
Premier Ford has repeatedly said that he did not know which sites would be opened until shortly before the announcement.
The auditor general’s report appears to confirm this fact; however it also lays out a decision-making process that lacks transparency, communication and proper consultation.
“While the people of Ontario deserve prompt action to solve societal problems like those generated by a need for housing, this does not mean that government and non-elected political staff should sideline or abandon protocols and processes that promote objective and transparent decision-making based on sufficient, accurate and timely information,” the report reads.
The premier said he would be adopting 14 of the 15 recommendations within the auditor general’s report. When asked by CTV News Toronto, he clarified that the one recommendation his government will not be implementing is the re-evaluation of the land removal from the Greenbelt.
PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT FOR DEVELOPERS AND LOBBYISTS
The report first notes that there is no evidence that removing land from the Greenbelt was needed to meet the government’s housing goals. This conclusion was made both by the province’s own housing affordability task force and city planners in the regions of Durham, Hamilton and York–the three areas impacted by the changes.
The auditor general notes that 92 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was requested by developers the Chief of Staff dined with at a Sept. 14 Building and Land Development Association’s Chair’s dinner.
“At this event, the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff were seated at the same table as prominent housing developers and a registered lobbyist,” the report reads.
“The Chief of Staff told us two developers provided him with packages at this event containing information about two sites from the Greenbelt: the (Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve) lands in Durham Region and the Bathurst-King site in York Region.”
The proposals were handed to the chief of staff in the form of “packages.” 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.
Lysyk notes these 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.”
Ford told reporters it is not uncommon for staff members to be handed documents in the form of “packages,” including at the Legislature from members of the opposition.
“The best ideas come from outside the government,” he said, adding he is certain that no one benefitted personally from the land removal.
“If it's a good recommendation, then we sit down and discuss it.”
The owners of the 15 land sites chosen through this process could see more than an $8.3 billion increase to the values of their properties, the report found. The cost of removing the sites themselves is still unknown, although the auditor general estimates it could be in the billions.
The report also notes that throughout the process of conducting the audit, several examples of appeared preferential treatment to lobbyists were noted.
“This included providing information about the ownership and purchasing of lands, setting up investment-opportunity meetings with Minister’s Office staff, and the consideration of draft legislative and regulatory changes.”
The auditor general’s office also noted instances in which lobbyists working for developers emailed political staff with legislation amendment suggestions, which were then copy-pasted and forwarded to deputy ministers for inclusion.
“Senior non-political public servants, who were directed by political staff to carry the proposal forward, appeared unaware that the proposed amendments had originated from a lobbyist.”
HOW WERE THESE SITES SELECTED?
Greenbelt was established in 2005, but only 22 of those sites were considered during the 2022 selection.
Of those, 21 were provided directly by the chief of staff. The report notes that the team was provided with further information about select sites by the chief of staff through USB keys.
Nine of the 21 sites were brought to the chief of staff’s attention by developers or representatives, the report found, while five others were identified by other political staff members within the housing ministry’s office. The chief of staff could not recall how the additional seven sites were put on his radar.
The Greenbelt Project Time was tasked with reviewing the sites using a series of criteria, which initially included whether the site was near an urban area, on the edge of the greenbelt, and near municipal services.
The land also could not be part of the natural heritage system or specialty crop designations.
The team found that 20 of the sites either did not meet all of the criteria or it could not be determined within the three-week timeframe.
“What followed cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” Lysyk told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
After this analysis, criteria regarding environmental or agricultural issues were removed. The report also found that some of the sites were also expanded or altered so that they could be considered on the edge of the Greenbelt.
“About 83 per cent of the land area removed is of the highest quality and capability for agriculture,” Lysyk said.
“Further 11 of the 15 areas removed from the Greenbelt contained lands within the natural heritage system, which captures areas with the most sensitive or significant natural features and functions in Ontario.”
The decisions were also made without proper discussion with municipalities or with First Nations, the report found, and the 30-day public environmental registry notice was described as “incomplete and inaccurate.”
Lysyk noted in her report that staff did not have sufficient time to analyze the 35,000 “overwhelmingly negative comments” made in response to the notice, and that the proposal was pushed forward with no revisions.
The housing minister and premier’s office was briefed on the land removal near the end of October and cabinet approved the plan on Nov. 2. Lysyk noted the proposal to cabinet did not clearly explain how sites were identified, assessed or selected.
Lysyk said that the selection process “calls into question” who was supervising the minister's chief of staff in the month leading up to the decision.
“The Housing Minister informed us that he was not aware of the specifics of what his chief of staff was working on in terms of the Greenbelt site selection exercise. And the chief of staff told us that he did not inform the Housing Minister of his part in the Greenbelt amendments,” she said at a news conference.
“In our view, the Housing Minister ought to have known the key details of such a high profile and pull it politically sensitive government exercise and ensure the cabinet and the premier were also made fully aware of these details.”
Clark told reporters the process was a “symptom of speed” to implement the province’s plan to build more homes. However, neither he nor the premier addressed whether this kind of decision-making was common place in their government.
In writing the report, Lysyk noted the housing developers associated with 92 per cent of the land removals refused to meet with her office, despite summons.
Her office chose to release the report as it stands rather than challenge their decision in court.