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'Leadership' or a 'corrupt process? Area MPPs weigh in on Greenbelt report

'We have a government that really doesn’t care about ordinary Ontarians and addressing the housing affordability crisis,' says Mike Schreiner
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File photo from a 2018 public open house on the potential expansion of the Greenbelt. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

The province followed a “corrupt process” when it made changes to the Greenbelt last year, including the addition of a slice of Wellington County, says Guelph MPP and Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner.

As evidence, he points to a report released last week by auditor general Bonnie Lysyk which identified numerous concerns with the process followed to remove and add lands to the Greenbelt, including an absence of scientific evidence to support the decision and the influence of development lobbyists.

“We have a government that really doesn’t care about ordinary Ontarians and addressing the housing affordability crisis. Instead, they’re prioritizing wealthy, well-connected land speculators,” Schreiner told GuelphToday. “This report made it very clear the government is willing to break all the rules and roll out the red carpet so three, four elite land speculators can cash in to the tune of $8.3 billion and the rest of us in Ontario are going to pay the price for that.”

The decision to make changes to the Greenbelt, Lysyk says following a review of the situation, resulted in a potential $8.3 billion land value increase for a handful of developers regarding sites removed, as well as the inclusion of about 7,000 acres of land in the town of Erin.

“Although the government met the requirement of not reducing the total area of the greenbelt, as required in the Greenbelt Act, 2005, we determined that the way the government assessed and selected lands for removal from and addition to the greenbelt was not publicly transparent, objective or well-informed, and was inconsistent with the vision, goals and processes of the Greenbelt Plan,” the report states.”Further, we noted that opening the Greenbelt was not needed to meet the government’s goal of building 1.5 million homes over 10 years.”

The inclusion of lands in Erin, part of the Paris Galt Moraine, was not based on natural boundaries or the protection of environmental functions, the auditor general found. In addition, provincial officials didn’t evaluate the suitability of adding lands as an offset to removals.

Further, a Greenbelt project team established by the provincial government to recommend additions and removals urged inclusion of the entire Paris Galt Moraine, yet only six per cent of it was added to the Greenbelt – just enough to offset lands removed.

“The portion of the Paris Galt Moraine that was added has its western boundary cutting across the moraine, without consideration for hydrological, ecological or geological features,” the auditor general’s report notes. “The Paris Galt Moraine’s rolling, hilly terrain is significant because it forms the headwaters for many rivers and streams, contributes to filtration and storage of drinking water, provides wildlife habitat and supports prime agricultural land.”

The report also flags concerns raised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs that Greenbelt changes are expected to have “significant adverse agricultural lands impacts,” as well as noting, “the public and affected municipalities were not sufficiently and effectively consulted on the Greenbelt changes, nor was respectful and deliberate consideration given to the overwhelmingly negative feedback received.

“Indigenous communities and leaders say the province failed to properly consult them on Greenbelt changes,” it adds.

Matthew Rae, Progressive-Conservative MPP for Perth-Wellington who became Clark’s parliamentary assistant earlier this year, said in a phone interview he felt the premier and housing minister were demonstrating leadership and taking responsibility by committing to improving the process based on the auditor general’s report recommendation. 

“We’re accepting all recommendations to strengthen the process and transparency,” Rae said. 

This means the government is accepting 14 out of 15 recommendations from the report including a review of the Lobbyist Registration Act, Members’ Integrity Act and the Public Service of Ontario Act.

“All three of those acts oversee ethics at the provincial level, so we’ll initiate a review of all three acts via an independent legislative committee which we’ll review how to strengthen and ensure regulatory oversight moving forward,” Rae said. 

One recommendation the government is not moving forward, Rae said, is reversing the Greenbelt swap as the government finds it necessary to deal with the housing crisis. 

“We can’t stop building homes, we’re in a housing supply crisis,” Rae said, noting sites removed from the Greenbelt will add at least 50,000 units. 

When asked about the province’s housing task force report from 2022 which said removing Greenbelt land was not necessary to achieve the province’s housing goals, Rae responded that the report came out before the province saw record immigration. 

Rae said the province is moving quickly to get homes built at these sites as “shovels need to be in the ground by the end of 2025” or the land reverts back to Greenbelt land.

Guelph MPP Mike Schriener, leader of the Ontario Green Party, points out the Greenbelt was created in consultation with hydrogeologists, land planning experts, ecologists and local leaders.

“It was designed in a way that was evidence-based and scientific rigour to it, that we would be protecting prime farmland adjacent to the vital ecological areas,” he said, adding the moraine deserves protection. “That needs to be done in a way that is guided by evidence and science, and not by political calculations, which is the approach the government took.

“It’s hard to say that you’ve protected the moraine based on science and evidence when you’ve protected only six per cent of it,” he continued. “It seems to be for political cover and not based on evidence or science.”

Schreiner feels a “corrupt process” was followed, one that disregards the environmental, economic and food security threats created in the wake of Greenbelt changes.

In her report, Lysyk notes 92 per cent of land removed from the greenbelt was recommended to the housing minister’s chief of staff by developers, with the decision-making criterion and selected site boundaries adjusted during the evaluation process. 

Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott declined to comment on the report, pointing to his role as speaker of the legislative assembly.

“As speaker, I am not at liberty to make any public statements on issues that are before the house or likely to come up in the house. This issue is likely going to come up in the house when it resumes sitting in September,” the longtime Progressive Conservative MPP said via email. “We have received many emails on this subject, and it is my intention to bring these to the attention of the premier and the minister of municipal affairs and housing.”