Greenbelt land swap audit finds ‘preferential treatment’ given to developers

Government implementing 14 of 15 audit recommendations; additional investigation by integrity commissioner, police possible

TORONTO – The provincial government’s hasty move to open thousands of acres of Greenbelt-designated land for housing development was “flawed” and “biased,” Ontario’s Auditor General told reporters on Aug. 9.

Not only was the redesignation of 7,400 acres by the Progressive Conservatives unnecessary to meet its lofty goal of seeing 1.5 million homes built by 2031, the government missed the mark on other details, such as environmental considerations and Indigenous consultation.

A new and damning report from Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk laid bare the revelations last week.

The province, led by Premier Doug Ford, “failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial risks and impacts, proceeded with little input from experts or affected parties, and favoured certain developers/landowners,” Lysyk said.

The 95-page report, tabled in the Ontario Legislature, began after provincial opposition party leaders wrote to Lysyk calling for an investigation in January.

“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 are important to guide objective and transparent decision-making based on sufficient and accurate information,” Lysyk said.

Speaking to reporters the day the report was released, the premier admitted there are “areas for improvement.”

“We were moving fast … We could have had a better process,” the premier told reporters at Queen’s Park on Aug. 9.

“I take full responsibility for the need for better process.”

Of 15 recommendations put forward by the auditor general, the government will implement nearly all, with the exception of one calling on the government to reevaluate its Greenbelt decisions.

Doubling down last week, Ford said, “We can build more homes, or we can sit back and let the crisis get worse; our government is choosing to build.”

If there was any ambiguity, he followed up his statement saying, “our government will proceed with these developments.”

The premier claimed opening up Greenbelt land for development will allow for at least 50,000 new homes for at least 150,000 people — many of them immigrants anticipated to settle in Ontario.

“As we continue to respond to the housing supply and affordability crisis, we need to keep moving,” Ford said, adding the problem would only be solved by balancing out supply and demand.

Audit reveals flawed reasoning, process

But Lysyk said “the reasoning for the Greenbelt changes was just as flawed as the selection process itself.”

The audit revealed a restricted process excluding substantive input from many stakeholders, including other provincial ministries as well as the municipalities affected — a point local planners have made in speaking with the Advertiser.

“Nor did the housing ministry carry out a comprehensive analysis of the 35,000 comments posted on the registry which were overwhelming negative,” Lysyk said.

“Preferential treatment” was given to developers with “direct access” to the housing minister’s chief of staff Ryan Amato, an audit report states.

Since the Greenbelt — the world’s largest — was established by the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government 18 years ago, hundreds of requests for land removal have been submitted.

But just 22 were considered for removal last year, the audit notes.

Of those, 21 were put forward by the housing minister’s chief of staff, who led a six-person group of apolitical staff on the “Greenbelt Project Team” tasked with identifying and selecting lands for removal, the audit revealed.

Last December, the government approved 15 areas to be removed from regions in Durham, Hamilton and York – 14 were recommended by Amato, with just one recommended by Greenbelt Project Team staff.

According to Lysyk, the project team was bound by confidentiality agreements and given limited time to assess sites.

Amato also “adjusted the assessment criteria, including eliminating the consideration of agricultural and environmental factors” for certain sites, Lysyk said.

The majority (67 per cent) of the 7,400 acres of land removed were put forward by two developers during a Building Industry and Land Development Association’s dinner last September, the audit notes.

Ultimately, 92% of the total acreage removed belonged to three developers, which stand a chance of benefiting financially.

According to Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) valuations provided as part of the audit, the 15 land sites ultimately removed from the Greenbelt could be worth an additional $8.3 billion more than they were in 2016.

In reality, the value of the land would be significantly more once MPAC conducts up-to-date assessments, Lysyk said.

The audit also found almost 1,000 acres of wetland and woodland were removed through the boundary changes and, according to the province’s agriculture ministry, 6,142 acres of removed area was classified as prime farmland.

The boundary change, Lysyk said, was not “standard” or “defensible.”

By law, the area of land contained within the Greenbelt cannot be reduced.

So the provincial government looked to bring in 7,000 acres of land belonging to the Paris Galt Moraine and located in Erin, as well as the addition of urban river valleys.

“While additions were made … 2,400 of the added acres are areas typically already protected and largely undevelopable,” an audit summary notes.

Premier stands by decision

In response to the report last week, the premier and the housing minister used a 50-minute question/answer session with reporters largely to reiterate political talking points.

A “crisis” in housing and affordability, and ongoing growth from immigration were repeatedly referenced.

The housing minister jumped in on several questions directed to the premier, and many of Ford’s statements about accepting responsibility were followed by a “but” as he attempted to justify his government’s actions.

“At the end of the day, I take full responsibility for the process,” Ford said.

“But I can tell you, we have a housing crisis, the likes of which this province and this country has never seen before.”

However, the audit calls into question the government’s talking point.

The government had already allocated housing targets to municipalities for 1.5 million homes a month before land sites were approved for removal from the Greenbelt, Lysyk said.

And the auditor general referenced a February 2022 report from the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force that states, “a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem.

“Land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped land outside greenbelts.”

Integrity commissioner investigation continues

The premier has vehemently denied he stands to benefit personally from the land swaps, and said he didn’t find out about specific properties until the day they were presented to cabinet.

The housing minister has said he was unaware of what his chief of staff was considering in terms of site selection.

Clark maintains he only became aware of the properties a week before the presentation to cabinet.

An investigation by the province’s integrity commissioner into whether Clark or Ford violated the Members’ Integrity Act has been ongoing since January.

“My chief and I continue to work with and collaborate with the integrity commissioner on the investigation,” Clark told reporters.

A request by the government has also been made to the commissioner to determine if Amato contravened the Public Service of Ontario Act, forming one of the recommendations from the auditor general.

“We’ll take his recommendations, so let’s see where we go after the integrity commissioner’s report comes out,” Ford said.

Although Lysyk said she met with the OPP during the audit, any future criminal investigation “will be up to the OPP to decide.”