This story is a collaboration between The Narwhal and the Toronto Star.
Ontario developers have spent nearly $173 million scooping up hundreds of acres in the former Greenbelt this summer, months after the Ford government reneged on its promise to protect the environmentally sensitive land.
All 524 acres, purchased in the span of five days in early June, lie within the ecologically important Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering, east of Toronto. The preserve, once known as the “crown jewel” of the Greenbelt, consists of prime farmland and sensitive waterways adjacent to Rouge National Urban Park.
Prominent developer Silvio De Gasperis of TACC group is among those who made the recent acquisitions. A company spokesperson said they plan to develop the land “to assist the province with its goal to improve housing supply and affordability.”
Since the early 2000s, De Gasperis has fought the province to develop over a thousand acres of land his companies already owned within the Duffins Rouge preserve, which was supposed to remain untouched in perpetuity. Since the Ontario government removed the preserve from the Greenbelt, it has also dismantled other laws protecting the area.
Of the eight recent sales, six were bought by White Cherry Developments. The company’s principals include De Gasperis and other prominent Greater Toronto Area developers: Gord Buck, founder of Argo Development, and Jack Eisenberger, president of Fieldgate Developments. White Cherry’s purchases span 400 acres, or about 162 hectares.
Companies associated with TACC also made two more acquisitions a few days later. One 90-acre property was already partially owned by TACC, but the company acquired the other co-owner’s interest in it for just over $15 million. The other piece of land was five acres directly next to the 90-acre property, purchased for just under $2.5 million.
The recent flurry of land sales in the preserve indicates the province’s decision to remove protections from it has sparked something like a gold rush for developers.
Phil Pothen, the Ontario environment program manager at the charity Environmental Defence, said the loss of the preserve would not just destroy habitat within its boundaries, but also harm the land around it — like Rouge National Urban Park.
“Anyone who purchases [Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve] land now knows that it has been purchased under a cloud, that the circumstances of removal of land from the Greenbelt are highly questionable,” Pothen said.
Last fall, the Ontario government opened up 7,400 acres of protected Greenbelt land for development in a move Premier Doug Ford said would allow the construction of 50,000 homes. In exchange, the province added 9,400 acres elsewhere to the two-million-acre Greenbelt, though that land was already protected under other mechanisms.
Both Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner are investigating the government’s decision to change the Greenbelt’s boundaries.
The federal government has come out strongly in favour of protecting the national park and the agricultural preserve land next to it, saying it would even consider using extraordinary powers to block or delay development. A review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada of the impacts of development on lands adjacent to the national park is currently underway.
De Gasperis in particular has been an outspoken opponent of the Greenbelt since before its creation, and his company unsuccessfully sued the Ontario government in the 2000s in an attempt to keep his land out of the protected area.
In a statement, Alana De Gasperis of TACC Developments — Silvio’s daughter — said on behalf of the White Cherry consortium that the recent acquisition in the preserve was part of a planned development project called Cherrywood, a name taken from an existing hamlet in the area. The first phase of Cherrywood is set to include 1,200 homes, with developers proposing to eventually build 30,000.
Last year, a Narwhal/Toronto Star investigation into the developers benefitting from Ontario’s Greenbelt decision found 24 properties in the preserve owned by companies listing Silvio De Gasperis as a director. Purchased mostly in 2003 — with one lot added in 2004 and two in 2016 — for a combined $8.6 million, the lands add up to more than 1,300 acres. The investigation also showed De Gasperis family, their companies and senior staff have donated at least $294,000 to the Ontario Progressive Conservative party since 2014. (They also donated just over $19,000 to other parties in the same period of time.)
The recent purchases also show just how much value of the land, once prohibited from development, has increased since it was removed from the Greenbelt.
A company affiliated with TACC, 14th Avenue Farms, purchased 106 acres in the agricultural preserve in 2020 for $7.9 million, about $85,000 per acre when adjusting for inflation. In a recent transaction, with the Greenbelt designation and other environmental protections removed, White Cherry Developments bought 82 acres for $29.5 million. That’s about $357,199 per acre, more than four times higher than the 2020 purchase price.
Alana De Gasperis did not directly answer when asked how much TACC has seen the value of its lands in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve increase. She also did not answer whether TACC knew the land would eventually be developable when the 2020 purchase was made.
“It is impossible to know what the value of these lands will be today given that this development requires tremendous investment, commitment, study and work,” Alana De Gasperis said in the statement.
Most of the lands were put up for private sale in January, with a brochure advertising their value given their removal from the Greenbelt.
“This offering represents an outstanding opportunity to introduce meaningful housing stock at scale to a supply constrained market,” the brochure said.
Victor Doyle, a former provincial planner credited as an architect of the Greenbelt, said developers’ willingness to pay higher prices now to acquire more land in the area reflects how certain they must be that there’ll be a significant windfall.
“It just completely reaffirms it’s open season on anywhere in the Greenbelt for speculation, development interests,” Doyle said.
The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve was the largest area removed from the Greenbelt last year.
The area was, at one point, expropriated by the provincial government. In 1999, the province worked with the City of Pickering to sell it back to the original landowners and tenant farmers, who agreed to agricultural easements set by Pickering to leave it as green space in perpetuity. But in 2005, with the land about to be included in the province’s new Greenbelt, Pickering suddenly revoked the easements. Developers — including Silvio De Gasperis — snapped up land at bargain-basement prices.
“Everybody is always looking for a deal,” De Gasperis told the Star in 2005 after he bought the land.
The province stepped in, again, adding the land to the Greenbelt and restoring the easements. De Gasperis’ company sued the government in response, a pursuit that cost him millions of dollars. The court ruled in 2007 that De Gasperis’ company and another company that brought the application acted in bad faith.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice found the application by the companies was a “further step in their ongoing war with the province” in an attempt to harass and intimidate the province into permitting development on their lands.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Silvio De Gasperis is poised to begin building. That work will have to happen in short order: the Ontario government set a deadline of 2025 for developers to get shovels in the ground on former Greenbelt land. If they don’t meet it, the lands will be returned to the protected area, the province has said.
Victoria Podbielski, spokesperson for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, said in a statement that the City of Pickering has “repeatedly indicated” the agricultural preserve lands are “well-suited” for housing development and should be removed from the Greenbelt. Pickering’s current city council, however, voted in December to condemn the province’s move.
Podbielski also said the government’s expectation is that at least 10 per cent of the homes built there be “affordable” — a condition that was not included when the government removed protections from the preserve.
Developers have been in confidential talks about next steps since January with Durham Region, a municipality that includes the agricultural preserve, and a provincial government development facilitator who helps resolve disputes over land use.
Durham has argued against building on the preserve, saying it would be difficult and expensive to deliver municipal services like sewage, water and electricity, which the area mostly lacks right now. Large-scale development would require “major upgrades to the regional water and sewer systems which will take years to plan and complete,” the region’s planning staff said earlier this year.
Alana De Gasperis said in her statement that developers would be responsible for the cost of any new infrastructure. She also said they’re working with environmental engineers and other experts to protect and in some cases enhance natural features on the landscape.
“There will be additional financial commitments for community benefits such as affordable housing, parks, trails, healthcare lands and urban agriculture, all of which are costs to the developers,” she said.
“The result will be a complete, resilient, healthy community to provide much needed housing and support the coexistence and wellbeing of people, the environment and nature.”
Bonnie Littley, co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition, who campaigned in the early 2000s to protect the Pickering land, says she fears the selling of land in the preserve will continue, even though there are no plans for how that will translate into more housing.
“The worst part of it is that there is no infrastructure planned for this area, because it was supposed to be protected,” she said.
“What happens now? Do we cut off development elsewhere to put all our resources here?” she said. “It’s just ludicrous from a planning perspective.”
—With research assistance from Jesse McLean, Rick Sznajder and Astrid Lange
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