20211112 Greenbelt

Calls mount for probes into Greenbelt land sales as PCs refuse to answer questions

Asked directly, Housing Minister Steve Clark wouldn’t deny giving developers advance notice of plans to cut Greenbelt protections

The Ontario Green Party has asked the province’s integrity commissioner to investigate whether Premier Doug Ford and one of his ministers violated ethics rules in opening the Greenbelt for development.

The party’s leader, Mike Schreiner, asked the commissioner to examine whether Ford and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, whose portfolio includes Ontario’s Greenbelt, violated rules around conflict of interest and the sharing of insider information.

“I appreciate these are serious allegations, and I didn’t file this complaint proudly or without due consideration, but at the request of Ontarians who deserve transparency and to have the utmost trust and respect for their elected officials,” Schreiner said in a statement Tuesday.

The request comes in the wake of reporting by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star, which revealed six developers bought Greenbelt land now slated for development in the past four years, since Ford was recorded in 2018 telling a private audience he’d “open a big chunk” if elected premier.

Of the 15 areas of Greenbelt land being opened for development, eight included properties purchased since Ford was first elected in 2018. One purchase was made in September, just weeks before Clark announced the plan to open 7,400 acres of long-protected land. Other developers have owned portions of the Greenbelt for many years and now stand to see the value of their land skyrocket.

The Narwhal/Star investigation also showed several of the developers who stand to gain the most from the government’s planned opening of Greenbelt land for development have ties to Ford’s Progressive Conservative party. Names matching those of nine developers, their companies, their senior staff or their families have given $572,000 to the party since 2014, the analysis showed. Several have also hired former Tory officials, staffers and politicians to lobby the government on their behalf.

“The people of Ontario are rightfully suspicious of the timing of the sale of certain protected Greenbelt lands that will now be open for development, and the ties these land speculators have to the [Progressive Conservative] Party,” Schreiner said.

Steve Clark, wearing a suit and tie, speaks at a podium with a building in the background.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark is responsible for the Greenbelt. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he did not deny giving developers advance notice of plans to open the protected area for development. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr

Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Clark, didn’t directly answer questions from The Narwhal. Instead she sent a transcript of a scrum with reporters earlier that day, in which Clark refused multiple times to directly answer when asked if he had tipped off developers to the opening of the Greenbelt, saying he was “honest, open and transparent.”

“We followed all of the procedures,” Clark told reporters. “I’m the housing minister. I meet with a variety of people on housing all the time.”  

The next day, in question period, the NDP repeated their question to Clark. He responded with an emphatic no, saying he had not tipped off developers: “I’m going to be assisting the integrity commissioner in his investigation,“ Clark said. “I look forward to being vindicated and I look forward to the apology from the official opposition.“

Michelle Renaud, a spokesperson for the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, confirmed Commissioner David Wake has received Schreiner’s request. “The matter is under review,” Renaud said in an email. Whether Wake decides to investigate or not, he will have to publish a report, according to the commissioner’s inquiry process.

Schreiner’s request for an investigation into Greenbelt land sales is the second to come after The Narwhal/Star reporting. Last week, the Ontario NDP asked the province’s auditor general to probe how much landowners might stand to gain from the opening of the Greenbelt land, the environmental impact and whether the changes are in the public interest.

Ontario election 2022: Mike Schreiner wears hiking clothes, standing next to a creek in early spring.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the timing of recent purchases of Greenbelt land, reported by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star, was “suspicious.” Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Earlier Tuesday, during question period, NDP MPP Jessica Bell asked Clark to clarify whether the government told developers in advance that it was planning to open sections of Greenbelt for development. Clark didn’t directly respond, talking about the province’s strategy to build more homes instead, and calling the NDP’s complaints “jiggery pokery.”

“Our government was crystal clear with Ontarians during the election that we wanted to build more homes,” Clark fired back.

“Minister, what I’m not hearing from you is a ‘no,’ ” Bell quipped in response.

In his statement Tuesday, Schreiner pointed to Clark’s lack of denial: “The fact that today in question period the minister of municipal affairs and housing did not explicitly deny providing leaked information to Greenbelt land speculators about their plans, reaffirms the need for this investigation,” he said. 

The government has promised to add 9,400 acres of land to the Greenbelt to replace the 7,400 acres it’s taking out. That land would come from a series of urban river valleys and a small slice of an area called the Paris Galt Moraine. The urban river valleys sit on land that already cannot be developed, and farmland on the Paris Galt Moraine is already protected under other mechanisms. 

Updated Nov. 30, 2022, at 5:00 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include new comments from Housing Minister Steve Clark, who said Wednesday that he had not told developers in advance about the planned opening of Greenbelt land.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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