WELLINGTON COUNTY – As the Progressive Conservative provincial government deals with the fallout from a damning report by Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk on a controversial Greenbelt land swap, local MPP Matthew Rae said the government is responding to the report’s recommendations, but remains focused on achieving its housing goals.
In a report released Aug. 9, Lysyk was critical the process for selecting sites for removal from the Greenbelt, a 810,000-hectare area around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas containing farmland, forest and wetland that is considered off-limits for development.
“Our review … raises serious concerns about the exercises used, the way in which standard information gathering and decision protocols were sidelined and abandoned, and how changes to the Greenbelt were unnecessarily rushed through,” Lysyk said at a news conference at Queen’s Park.
“The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff.”
Lysyk found the selection process was primarily controlled by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark’s chief of staff with little input from planning experts or other stakeholders, including the public and Indigenous communities and that many of the sites were chosen at the behest of developers.
Premier Doug Ford has stated, “No one had preferential treatment,” even though the report found that 92 per cent of the 7,400 acres removed from the protected area could be tied to three developers with direct access to the housing ministry.
“We could have had a better process,” Ford said at a press conference following the report. “As premier, the buck stops with me. And I take full responsibility for the need for a better process.”
Rae, MPP for Perth-Wellington, became parliamentary secretary to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark in March of 2023, moving over from the same position in the Ministry of Education.
He said he learned the details of the plan to open portions of the Greenbelt for development at the same time as the public.
“The public announcement was in November, 2022 and December, 2022 was when it closed.
“And so I was made aware of it when it became public,” he told the Advertiser in an Aug. 11 telephone interview.
Rae did not answer directly when asked if he has worked on the Greenbelt file or noticed any red flags about the process since taking on his new position.
He instead noted Ford has been in front of the media answering questions about the report since it came out.
“I think it’s a good point to make that the premier, a sitting premier, is out in front of an auditor general’s report, which is actually rare … taking questions, taking responsibility,” Rae stated.
“As the premier has said multiple times since the auditor general’s report has come out, the buck stops with him.”
Rae echoed the premier’s position, citing problems with the process and said the government is working to rectify them.
“We need to adjust the framework and how we get things done. And we will do that,” he stated.
“We’re accepting 14 of the 15 recommendations (in the Auditor General’s report) and we know we need to improve the process. But we also know we need to build more homes quickly across Ontario.”
The one recommendation from the report the government has not committed to acting on is reviewing the decision to open Greenbelt lands.
Asked if he felt it was viable to push forward without a review, Rae focused on the government’s acceptance of the other recommendations, particularly a referral to the province’s integrity commissioner of the role in the process played by Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato.
The AG report states Amata had “substantial control” over the process of determining which land would be removed from the Greenbelt.
“A request for his determination on this matter has been sent to (the integrity commissioner) and I understand the commissioner’s office is looking into it,” said Rae.
Despite the controversy, Rae said the government remains focused on the housing issue.
“Ontario grew by half a million people last year. That’s just immigration,” he said.
“We also had 800,000 international students come to Ontario as well, and so we’re seeing massive growth across Ontario, not just in Toronto and we need to get more homes built quickly.
“And that is what our goal is moving forward.”
Planning policy changes
On the heels of the Greenbelt land swap, the government announced plans for significant changes to provincial planning policy. The changes, expected to take effect in the fall, include removing the process of Municipal Comprehensive Review (MCR), as well as eliminating hard requirements for intensification and density targets.
In April the provincial government made unilateral changes to an amendment to Wellington County’s Official Plan, adding more than 1,000 acres of mostly agricultural land to urban boundaries including:
- just over 1,000 acres around Fergus and Elora in Centre Wellington;
- 37 acres adjacent to Rockwood in Guelph/Eramosa; and
- about 15 acres on the southwest corner of Clifford in the Town of Minto.
Centre Wellington Mayor Shawn Watters has called the newly identified area, north of Fergus on Beatty Line straddling Sideroad 15 all the way up to Irvine Creek, a “curious” decision by the province.
Guelph/Eramosa Mayor Chris Whites has said the municipality does not have the sewage capacity to support the Rockwood expansion.
And Minto Mayor Dave Turton said a developer had requested urbanization of the 15 acres brought into Clifford under OPA 119, while the municipality was “recommending expansion in other parts of Minto.”
Asked if he was concerned the planning process was becoming more driven by developers than by planners and municipalities, particularly in sensitive agricultural areas, Rae said he is personally listening to local mayors and councils.
“I grew up on a farm and so I understand the importance of our agriculture system in Wellington County, Perth County and across southwestern Ontario,” he stated.
Rae said he meets with local mayors often “and I also receive many proposals from our local municipal councils.
“Whether that’s for more housing, whether it’s for wastewater treatment, infrastructure … advocating for those proposals at the provincial level is what I do and … will continue to do, whether that’s for land development, whether that’s for infrastructure needs, whatever the need may be, as identified by our municipal councils,” he stated.
“Ontario’s now the fastest growing region in North America. That’s faster than Texas and Florida and we need to get more homes built. And it’s not just … a Toronto issue,” Rae added.
“It’s affecting every community, whether it’s Palmerston, whether it’s Fergus or whether it’s Rockwood. We need to have more homes built and, really, more homes of all types.
“So we’re really focused on getting homes built that will fit each person’s budget, whatever that may be.”