3 Articles: 1) Ontario Looks To Return Land To Greenbelt After Owner Lists Property For Sale, 2)Tories Take Hit In Aftermath Of Greenbelt Report 3)

Courtesy of Barrie36.com and Canadian PressPublished: Aug 29th, 2023

By Liam Casey and Tara Deschamps in Toronto

Ontario is looking at returning land slated for housing to the Greenbelt after a company tried to sell two parcels that were removed from the protected area for development, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday.

In a written statement, Ford said the government learned the owner of the two areas in Ajax, Ont., had put up the properties for sale.

“At no point was the intention to sell disclosed to the government’s facilitator during active and ongoing discussions,” Ford said.

“This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people. In response, our government is exploring every option available to us, including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt.”

The province could return the land to the Greenbelt through regulatory changes, the premier’s office said.

Ford said he was issuing a warning to other owners of sites removed from the Greenbelt for housing.

“To the other property owners, you’re on notice: if you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt,” Ford said.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

The move sparked anger from critics and several investigations by different authorities. 

The auditor general found earlier this month that the province gave preferential treatment to certain developers when it removed land from the Greenbelt. 

Bonnie Lysyk found that Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, selected most of the sites that were removed for housing, rather than a team of civil servants struck for that purpose.

Lysyk said that developers who had access to Amato at a dinner at a developer conference wound up with 92 per cent of the land. The property owners of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion, she found.

Amato recently resigned from his job.

Ford said last week that he was confident nothing criminal took place in his government’s process of removing land from the Greenbelt. He and Clark have also said they didn’t know how sites removed from the protected area were selected.

The integrity commissioner is investigating both Clark and Amato while the RCMP have said they are weighing whether they will investigate.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Tuesday that the latest development is more proof that some who are well-connected to Ford are trying to get richer off the Greenbelt land swap.

“It’s a desperate attempt to distract the people of Ontario by trying to hide the tip of the iceberg,” Fraser said. 

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said all of the Greenbelt land removed by Ford’s government should be returned.

“Ford’s Conservatives are changing their tune simply because they got caught,” she said. 

“Clearly, this is a government that has one set of rules for those with close connections to their party and a different set for everyone else.”

Both leaders called on the housing minister to resign.

The auditor general’s report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or the landowner for the land recently listed for sale. A large parcel of the land in question was bought in June 2018. Buena Vista could not immediately be reached for comment.

The auditor general report also lists a numbered company as the owner of those sites. Property records show the area was bought in June 2018 for $15.8 million. The property includes a three-bedroom home built in 1880. 

A family owned the land for more than a century before putting it up for sale, a listing at the time shows.

The family said in that listing that it was 104 acres in the Greenbelt and a “high profile location.” The family wrote that they initiated the process of exempting the land from the Greenbelt designation with the province back in 2013. 

“Supports a mix use development. Potential of huge financial reward!” the listing reads.

The property was then put up for sale again in February 2022 for $1 but wasn’t sold. 

The auditor general found that 98 per cent of that land is classified as the highest quality soil that produces cash crops. It is also a priority area that maintains Greenbelt connectivity in the Ajax and Whitby, Ont., corridor.

There is another issue that will have to be considered should developers want to move ahead with housing in that area.

The Town of Ajax designated heritage status on a collection of buildings on the site in 2021. No one objected to the status, the town’s documents note.

The land is known as the Nicholas Austin Property, the town’s heritage bylaw on the property says. The heritage designation is primarily on the property’s old buildings.

“The property contains one of the oldest remaining dwellings in the town, a collection of interesting agricultural buildings and a rare example of an early airplane hangar,” the bylaw reads.

Many of the buildings are “architecturally significant” and built in the mid-1800s.

“This collection of agricultural outbuildings is surely amongst the most interesting and eclectic in the town,” the bylaw reads.

The town controls the fate of the heritage buildings, a spokeswoman said.

“The heritage designation means that anyone that wants to alter any of the heritage attributes of the property must first get approval from the town,” Devon Jarvis said in an email. 

Tories Take Hit In Aftermath Of Greenbelt Report

Dan BlakeleyPublished: Aug 25th, 2023

The first poll taken since the auditor-general released her report on the Greenbelt finds 59 per cent of respondents think the premier’s decisions are based on the best interest of his friends and supporters.

That’s up from 54 per cent in an Abacus poll a month ago. It’s not a big increase, but the fact it went up at all, Abacus Data CEO David Coletto told the Toronto Star, could be problematic for the Conservatives.

Asked if the report mandade them feel better, worse or had no impact on how they view the Ford government, 51 per cent said it made them feel worse, 13 per cent said they felt better, 37 per cent said it had no impact on their view.

In addition, Abacus found the Tories have slipped to 38 per cent support from 41 per cent in July. The Liberals and New Democrats are each up one per cent, to 25 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively. The Greens are unchanged at seven per cent.

3) Ontario Housing Minister Violated Integrity Act In Greenbelt Land Swap: Commissioner

Courtesy of Barrie360.com and Canadian PressPublished: Aug 30th, 2023

By Liam Casey in Toronto

Ontario’s housing minister violated ethics rules when the government removed land from the protected Greenbelt for development, the province’s integrity commissioner found, saying the process was marked by “unnecessary hastiness and deception.”

In a report released Wednesday, the commissioner found Housing Minister Steve Clark violated two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act that governs politicians’ ethics, conflict of interest rules and insider information rules.

Clark failed to oversee the land selection process, which led to the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly, commissioner J. David Wake found. 

“The evidence paints a picture of a process marked by misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception,” Wake wrote in his report.

“I have recommended to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario that Minister Clark be reprimanded for his failure to comply with the Act.” 

In responding to the report, Premier Doug Ford said Clark will continue to work toward the government’s goal of building housing and “ensure public trust and confidence is maintained every step of the way.”

“When it comes to the Greenbelt land-swap, the government’s singular goal has been to build more homes people can afford,” Ford wrote in a statement. 

“We’ve acknowledged areas where we need to improve; the Integrity Commissioner reiterated that today, and we’ll continue to work to strengthen the process moving forward.”

Clark, in his own written statement, said he accepted the integrity commissioner’s findings. 

“There were clear flaws in the process that led to today’s report,” he wrote. “I am fully committed to fulfilling our government’s promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and will ensure the process is done with integrity and trust.”

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

That decision led to a public outcry, as well as a complaint filed with the integrity commissioner by Official Opposition and New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles.

Wake concluded that Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was the “driving force” behind the lands that were selected to be developed.

“Mr. Amato advised Minister Clark to ‘leave it with me’ as he embarked on a chaotic and almost reckless process that I find led to an uninformed and opaque decision which resulted in the creation of an opportunity to further the private interests of some developers improperly,” the commissioner wrote

Amato resigned earlier this month but has denied any wrongdoing. 

The findings in the integrity commissioner’s report led to renewed calls on Wednesday for Clark’s resignation.

“We need to call it what it is: corruption,” Stiles said at a news conference. “It’s been clear to us that Mr. Clark needs to resign.”

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner echoed Stiles’ sentiments.

“This is unacceptable behaviour for an elected official, let alone one whose primary responsibility is to bring forward solutions to Ontario’s housing crisis,” he said.

Ford and Clark have been at the helm of the government’s pledge to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years. They have repeatedly said that the 50,000 homes slated for development on land removed from the Greenbelt are needed to achieve that goal.

But the province’s housing task force and three regions where the land was removed have said the Greenbelt land was not needed to achieve that target.

Wake said he and his team conducted a thorough investigation that included evidence from more than 60 witnesses, and more than 2,300 documents. They also reviewed maps, text messages, emails and briefing decks.

Wake found Amato received packages from certain developers keen to have their lands removed from the Greenbelt.

“When submissions for Greenbelt removals were met with ‘send me more information’ instead of only a polite acknowledgment, this was a subtle change in the messaging that was noticed quickly by the ever-sensitive antennae in the developer network,” Wake wrote.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

Ford said in 2018 he would not develop the Greenbelt after previously musing about doing so. That changed last year with his mandate letter to Clark shortly after the Progressive Conservatives handily won the 2022 election.

“In Fall 2022, complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt,” Ford wrote to Clark in the mandate letter in June 2022.

Wake found Clark, who is supposed to supervise his staff, made three critical decisions that “contributed to the improper result of the process.”

First, Clark misinterpreted the mandate letter’s timing for the Greenbelt removals that led Amato to embark on a “rushed process with unfortunate results,” Wake wrote.

Second, Clark decided to withdraw from the supervision and direction of “his highly significant initiative within his ministry.”

And, third, he took the Greenbelt proposal to cabinet without questioning Amato or his deputy minister about how the properties had been selected.

Much of the commissioner’s findings echo what Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found in her own Greenbelt report released earlier this month.

Lysyk said developers who had access to Amato at a developer conference wound up with 92 per cent of the land. The owners of the sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion, she found.

The province’s privacy commissioner was also asked to probe concerns related to the Greenbelt after the auditor general’s report found emails related to the land swap were regularly deleted by political staff, who were also using personal emails to conduct government business.

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Patricia Kosseim said Wednesday that her office was looking into that issue by dealing with freedom-of-information appeals related to the Greenbelt. 

The RCMP is also reviewing information about the Greenbelt land removal to determine whether it should investigate. Ford has said he is confident nothing criminal took place. 

Patricia Dent

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