The Ontario NDP have asked the province’s auditor general to investigate the Doug Ford government’s decision to open 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land for development.

The request comes on the heels of an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star which found that of the 15 areas to be opened for development, eight included properties purchased since Ford was elected. Six developers bought Greenbelt land after that first win in 2018, the same year Ford was recorded telling a private audience he would “open a big chunk” of the protected area if he became premier. Other developers, who own portions of long-protected land have held it for many years, also stand to make immense profits.

In a letter citing findings from the investigation, NDP MPP Marit Stiles said the timing of the purchases was “suspicious.” She asked auditor general Bonnie Lysyk 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.

“During your investigation, we also request that you consider sections 2 and 3 of the Members Integrity Act, which deal with MPP conflicts of interest and the sharing of insider information and refer any evidence of misconduct to the appropriate authorities,” read the letter, dated Nov. 24.

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Chris Poulos, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, did not directly answer questions from The Narwhal about whether any developers had advance knowledge of the move to open up the Greenbelt, or whether any Progressive Conservative MPPs had broken integrity rules.

In a statement, Poulos said the NDP are “opposing homes getting built,” and opening up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt “would lead to the creation of at least 50,000 new homes.”

Earlier this year, the government’s own housing affordability task force said a lack of available land isn’t the cause of Ontario’s housing crisis.

“We will continue to explore every possible option to get more homes built faster so more Ontarians can find a home that meets their needs and budget,” Poulos said.

Poulos also pointed to the government’s pledge to add 9,400 acres of land to the Greenbelt elsewhere. Some portion of that land — the government has not disclosed how much — is a series of urban river valleys that are already public land and can’t be developed.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark and Premier Doug Ford look out at a crowd at an event
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, left. Clark is the minister responsible for housing — and for the Greenbelt. Photo: Doug Ford / Twitter

Ann Lehman-Allison, a spokesperson for the auditor general, confirmed Lysyk has received the NDP’s letter but has not decided whether to pursue an investigation.

The changes to the boundaries of the Greenbelt aren’t final yet, but could be within a matter of days. Land in the Greenbelt generally cannot be built on. Created in 2005, it protects prime farmland, sensitive waterways and quickly vanishing green space.

“The removal of Greenbelt lands also has several significant long-term environmental consequences, including threatening the integrity of interconnected natural and agricultural systems,” Stiles said in the letter.

“Environmental experts warn that removing pieces of the Greenbelt threatens all of it.”

The Narwhal/Star investigation also found that nine of the developers who stand to benefit most from the Greenbelt land swap appear to have donated significant sums to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Names matching the developers, their companies, their families and their senior staff members have given $572,000 to the party since 2014, donation records show.

Several are also connected to the Progressive Conservatives through former Tory officials and politicians now working as registered lobbyists.

NDP letter points to two developers highlighted in Narwhal/Star Greenbelt investigation

In her letter to the auditor general, Stiles pointed to portions of the Greenbelt owned by two developers who were highlighted in The Narwhal/Toronto Star investigation.

One is Michael Rice of Rice Group. A company associated with Rice purchased nearly 700 acres of undeveloped Greenbelt land in September for $80 million, the Narwhal/Star analysis found. That land is now slated to be removed from the Greenbelt, and could see its value skyrocket.

“The removal of protections from these lands would instantly shift immense wealth onto the landowners, without requiring even a single home to be built,” Stiles wrote in her letter.

Stiles also pointed to large swaths of land owned by companies associated with Silvio De Gasperis of TACC Developments.

Since 2003, companies run by De Gasperis have bought at least 1,300 acres of land in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a portion of the Greenbelt east of Toronto, the Narwhal/Star investigation showed. All are set to be opened for development. And companies that include De Gasperis as a director — including some consortiums with other developers — own land in four of the 15 areas of the Greenbelt slated to be opened for development.

The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve is also protected by two other layers of legislation, which the government is also proposing to roll back, clearing the way for developers to build housing on the land. The preserve protects prime farmland and sensitive waterways.

Rice and TACC Developments did not respond to requests for comment from the Star and The Narwhal about Stiles’ letter by publication time.

With files from Noor Javed and Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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