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Behind Ontario’s controversial housing changes: Documents shed light on Greenbelt, boundary

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is facing a fresh wave of controversy after a deluge of internal documents was released Monday, shedding new light on how the government went about removing land from the Greenbelt and forcing some cities to expand their boundaries.

Environmental Defence, a climate advocacy group, filed a series of freedom of information requests looking into the government’s decision to expand urban boundaries of some cities and other internal Greenbelt conversations.

The 5,000-plus pages of documentation reveal internal meetings, the influence of developers and early fears among staffers that changes could “poison” attempts to build more homes in Ontario.

As part of a series of controversial and heavy-handed measures to boost Ontario’s housing supply, the Ford government tweaked the boundaries of several cities and counties, including Guelph, Wellington, Waterloo, Barrie, Belleville and Peterborough in April.

The changes allowed development on tranches of land where it was previously prohibited, something some cities and anti-sprawl advocates fought vehemently against.

The result, according to the internal document from the Ministry of Housing, would open up more than 4,700 hectares of land for housing development by 2051.

Opposition figures have compared the changes to the Ford government’s decision to remove 7,400 protected acres of land from the Greenbelt. They say allowing development to spread from outwards from the edge of cities has a similar effect, destroying previously rural or agricultural spaces.

The changes to both the Greenbelt and the expanded urban boundaries were later reversed by new housing minister Paul Calandra in October. He suggested there was “too much involvement” from the previous minister and his staff in urban boundary changes.

He said there was a need to reconsider the changes and seek the blessing of municipal councils.

Environmental Defence, the group behind the document dump, said it shows a “chaotic, developer-led process that did an end-run around the normal planning approval process and was driven by political staff in the Minister’s office.”

A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford said neither the premier nor his staff had influence over site selection for Greenbelt changes.

“Changes to the Greenbelt were only contemplated after the 2022 provincial election,” the spokesperson said.

“As noted by both the Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner, neither the premier or the premier’s office was part of any specific site selection.”

Caucus warned of document dump

Multiple sources told Global News the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus was informed about the freedom of information document dump during a meeting on Oct. 23, just hours before Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced a wholesale reversal of the urban boundary expansion plan.

At the meeting, PC MPPs were told the freedom of information request had resulted in roughly 7,000 pages of internal government communications related to the urban boundary changes. The briefing left many with the impression that the documents were driving the decision to reverse course, sources said.

The reversal, sources suggested, also left caucus members feeling upset because PC MPPs were consulted before the changes were made, giving them rare and direct influence over government policy not normally afforded to back-bench politicians.

The government’s reversal also triggered a motion from Hamilton City Council to reach out to the RCMP and request an expansion of its Greenbelt investigation to include the changes made to the city’s urban boundaries.

Premier’s office involved in changes

The internal documents suggest Queen’s Park took control of a traditionally municipal process to lead planning changes to the shape and size of towns and cities across Ontario.

Detailed discussions between municipal civil servants and political staff show hours of time devoted to small details in the mapping of urban boundaries in cities like Hamilton and regions such as Halton, both west of Toronto.

Some communications suggest planning details were coming straight from Premier Doug Ford’s office.

“I hate to do this… but this was sent to us from someone at PO (Premier’s Office),” Kirsten Jensen, the housing minister’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in November 2022.

“I think we are accomplishing almost everything they’re asking for (heights and density ask??) but Ryan (Amato, chief of staff) would like us to look into the last-minute request for the employment piece…”

The email was part of a discussion about expanding urban boundaries in Peel Region.

In a separate email about changes to urban boundaries in York Region, Amato suggests the premier’s office is directly involved in the decision-making.

“I understand the advice from the team that the urban systems survey doesn’t change anything but po (premier’s office) has asked me for a picture to make sure it’s captured,” Amato wrote in a November 2022 message.

Environmental Defence said the documents show many of the changes were coming straight from developers.

Developer given Greenbelt amendment ‘owner asked for’

The trove of documents also reveals internal meetings and briefings related to the Greenbelt lands.

In one meeting, notes suggest land owned by a prominent Ford-associated developer that was removed from the Greenbelt was done in a way that was “just what (the) owner asked for.”

Soon after becoming premier in 2018, according to the integrity commissioner’s investigation into the Greenbelt land swap, Doug Ford met with Ontario developer Silvio de Dasperis.

At the meeting, the developer raised the issue of potential development on lands he owned in Pickering, Ont.

Development of the area — called Cherrywood — was stalled because the property was in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of the Greenbelt.

In 2022, the land was suddenly removed by the Ford government.

According to the newly-released documents, days before the Greenbelt was carved out, senior government officials noted internally: “Cherrywood – just what owner asked for.”

Ford has denied he had any prior knowledge or involvement in the decision over which lands to remove from Ontario’s Greenbelt, a denial reports from both Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general did not refute.

A spokesperson for Ford said: “For nearly 20 years, the City of Pickering has advocated for removing the Cherrywood lands, including as recently as last November when both outgoing and incoming mayors wrote to the province.”

Premier potentially involved in Hamilton land removal

The documents also suggest Ford was involved in a decision to remove land from the Greenbelt in Hamilton.

According to a letter sent to a staffer in the premier’s office, Ford and two other politicians met with Sergio Manchia, a principal planner with Urban Solutions.

The letter said they “discussed the justification for the addition of the lands to the Fruitland-Winona Secondary Plan, siting (sic) the error in the mapping of the subject lands when the Greenbelt was initiated.”

The letter, included in the document and sent from Urban Solutions, said “the parties agreed to pursue the request” because it fit the goal of building more housing.

According to Ontario’s integrity commissioner, Manchia bought tickets to a fundraising event for Ford’s daughter’s wedding, although he ultimately was unable to attend.

The spokesperson for Ford said the process to remove land from the Greenbelt had local support.

“This particular proposal in Hamilton for removal had long-standing support from the local municipality, including a letter from the then-mayor of Hamilton as well as a council resolution,” they said in a statement.

As Global News has previously reported, a client of Manchia with direct links to a union that endorsed the Progressive Conservative Party also had land removed from the Greenbelt.

Manchia and his planning partner worked on behalf of a landowner in Grimsby to successfully have her land greenlit for housing.

Internal fears about Greenbelt backlash

The documents also show intense internal fear about how changes to Ontario’s Greenbelt would be received when they were announced.

In late October, then-housing minister Steve Clark was briefed about details of how the Greenbelt would roll out. Notes released as part of the document dump suggested he wanted to get the process over and done with quickly.

“Minister would rather pull off the bandaid and hope the developers don’t stab them in the back,” one note said.

Another note suggested Amato, chief of staff, feared the changes would be so controversial they should be kept separate from other projects.

“Ryan — keep it separate from HSPAT (don’t poison bill),” another note said.

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