Ontario’s auditor general has alleged that Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario government have “favoured certain developers” in a Greenbelt land deal that could make some $8.28 billion.
On Wednesday, Auditor General Bonnie Lysuk presented a 93-page report to the legislature that claims Premier Ford opened up 15 parcels of environmentally protected land, a total of more than 7,400 acres, to developers in what “cannot be described as a standard or defensible process.”
Ford’s government promised to build 1.5 million homes over the next ten years to mitigate Ontario’s housing crisis but Lysyk said that Greenbelt land is not necessary to meet their target. She met with Ontario Provincial Police to discuss the matter, however she has not called for a criminal probe into the incident but said that, “whatever happens in the future will be up to the OPP to decide.”
“We found that how the land sites were selected was not transparent, fair, objective or fully informed.” wrote Lysyk in the report. “It can also be shown that there was sufficient land for the target of 1.5 million homes to be built without the need to build on the Greenbelt.”
Housing Minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff Ryan Amato were named by Lysyk to be involved in selecting what plots of Greenbelt land would be opened up for development, something that Lysyk also found unsettling.
“Direct access to the housing minister’s chief of staff resulted in certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment,” the report stated. Lysyk also drew attention to a dinner last fall that Amato attended with landowners, the Building Industry and Land Development Association’s (BILD) Chair’s Dinner.
“Altogether, those who had access to the chief of staff at the September BILD even ended up with land removals that accounted for 6,784 acres, or 92% of the 7,412.64 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt in December 2022,” wrote Lysyk.
Amato told Lysyk that at the BILD gala, “two prominent housing developers approached him and gave him packages containing information to remove two land sites from the Greenbelt.” The land sites in question were the Bathurst-King site in York Region and the Duffins Rouge agricultural preserve site in Durham Region. Both land sites were associated with two major developers, Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice.
“The chief of staff sat at the same dinner table as one of these two developers,” stated Lysyk.
Amato claims that upon receiving the packages that he did not immediately open them and review their contents.
“The Greenbelt exercise calls into question who, if anyone, was supervising a non-elected chief of staff. In our view, the housing minister ought to have known,” Lysyk told reporters.
Lysyk ordered both Rice and De Gasperis to be interviewed under oath and hand over any pertinent documents. The two developers went to court to block or delay the order, arguing that they were private citizens and that the auditor general had overstepped her authority. Premier Ford has shown support for their arguments.
Ford insists that land removal from the Greenbelt does not benefit any developers with ties to his party, saying, “we have nothing to hide.”
The Premier has said that no speculators were tipped off to any boundary amendments that were made last fall to any of the land parcels in King, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Pickering, Markham, Whitchurch-Stoufville, Clarington or Hamilton.
Lysyk’s report called for the government to “re-evaluate” their decision to amend the Greenbelt boundaries based on Ford and Clark’s questionable ignorance to how the process of land selection should be made.
“The premier and the minister of housing have communicated to us that they were unaware that the pre-selection of lands for removed from the Greenbelt was biased, controlled and directed by the housing minister’s chief of staff (a political public servant) rather than informed by environmental, agricultural and infrastructure considerations,” wrote Lysyk.
Today, Premier Ford held a press conference wherein he took full responsibility for the selection process. “The buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for the need for a better process,” he said.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said, “something smells fishy” and has requested probes into the dealings from two independent legislative officers. “The walls are closing in on this Conservative government,” said Stiles.
The report also noted the importance of the environmental impact this would have on the province. About 76% of the 7,400 acres being affected had been used as active farmland in 2022, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“About 83 per cent of the area removed is classified as Class 1-3 prime agricultural lands, which is of the highest quality and capability for agriculture,” wrote Lysyk, “almost 1,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands” are put at risk by the amendments.