Developers had direct influence over Ontario Greenbelt land removal, AG finds

Click to play video: 'Auditor general report criticizes Ford government for Greenbelt action'
Auditor general report criticizes Ford government for Greenbelt action
WATCH: In her final report as auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk found the Ontario government’s plan to remove land from the Greenbelt was not objective, transparent or informed. Seán O’Shea reports – Aug 9, 2023

Developers in Ontario had direct influence over the province’s decision to extract lands from the Greenbelt and received “preferential treatment,” Ontario’s auditor general found in a blistering special report that showed the Ford government began working to remove protected land as soon as it won re-election.

The explosive report from Bonnie Lysyk into the government’s dealings with developers comes after a six-month investigation and interviews with key players in the controversial decision, including Premier Doug Ford, who denied any wrongdoing.

The report, however, makes a definitive link between the Premier’s Office, the housing minister, a central political staffer who drove the project, and developers who benefitted from the deal.

The end result: the owners of 15 parcels of land removed from the Greenbelt will see the value rise by $8.3 billion, according to the auditor general.

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Among the key findings:

  • In a June 2022 mandate letter, Premier Doug Ford directed Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark to conduct “swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates” related to the Greenbelt.
  • The chief of staff to Clark, “working under the authority” of the Premier’s Office, implemented the policy.
  • The chief of staff received “packages” from “two prominent housing developers” with specific sites to target.
  • A team of government employees, bound by confidentiality, were given just three weeks to identify and assess up to 22 parcels of land for removal.
  • When the lands failed to meet the development standards to allow for removal, the criteria was changed to specifically allow pieces of land owned by developers with access to the government to be removed.
  • Of the 7,400 acres extracted, 6,700 — or 92 per cent — was removed as a direct result of developer access to the chief of staff.

Directive came from Premier Doug Ford’s office

Bonnie Lysyk’s report found that immediately after the June 2022 election, Housing Minister Steve Clark was given a new mandate letter for the government’s second term in office.

“Following the June 2, 2022, general election, the Premier directed the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (Housing Minister) in a mandate letter dated June 29, 2022, to ‘complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt,’” the report states.

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The report said the letter instructed Clark to complete the work in the fall of 2022.

Lysyk said the actual responsibility to find specific pieces of land fell to the minister’s chief of staff, working at the direction of Premier Ford’s office.

While Lysyk’s report does not name the chief of staff, government records and a LinkedIn profile indicate Ryan Amato has held the position of chief of staff to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing since July 2022.

Amato was appointed by the Premier’s Office, the report said, the same month work on the Greenbelt changes began.

Amato, the report notes, then met with developers to identify specific pieces of land, overruled provincial bureaucrats, and initiated a site-specific review — a decision that Lysyk said “ultimately facilitated a focus on only specific developers’ land sites” rather than a system-wide review of the Greenbelt.

“What followed cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” said Lysyk as she unveiled her report on Wednesday.

Global News sent questions to Amato, whose email has an out-of-the-office response. He did not respond in time for publication.

Speaking after the report was released, Ford said the housing crisis drove his government to remove lands from the Greenbelt. He argued the land would deliver new housing without taxpayers taking on the cost of the new infrastructure needed to service them.

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In a speech delivered before taking questions in Toronto, the premier admitted the province “could have had a better process.”

He said he took responsibility for the decision and the process but was not informed about the details of what land would be removed until a cabinet was held to approve the changes.

“The buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for the need for a better process,” Ford said.

He said the government would implement 14 of the 15 recommendations put forward by Lysk’s team.

Click to play video: 'Developers had direct influence over Ford government’s Ontario Greenbelt land removal, AG finds'
Developers had direct influence over Ford government’s Ontario Greenbelt land removal, AG finds

The Greenbelt Project Team

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Lysyk’s investigation concluded that the Ford government’s decision-making process was tightly controlled, secretive and rushed.

A small team of six, non-political staffers within the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing was set up to work on the land removal plan in October 2022. Named the Greenbelt Project Team, the group was governed by strict confidentiality and worked on a tight timeline.

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The auditor general’s report said the Greenbelt Project Team was given just three weeks to assess what protected land could be removed. The task force was originally given eight pieces of land to consider in its short timeline by Amato with 13 new sites later added. Lysyk said the team was also asked to suggest other new sites for removal.

Amato told the auditor general he regularly goes to development events where stakeholders “at times” pass along requests for land they would like to see removed from the Greenbelt.

At an event on Sept. 14, 2022, for example, two “prominent developers” gave Amato packages containing information about two Greenbelt sites they wanted to see removed, the report said.

Click to play video: 'Ford government braces for Auditor General Greenbelt report'
Ford government braces for Auditor General Greenbelt report

“The Chief of Staff sat at the same dinner table with one of these two developers,” the audit general wrote.

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The developers at the event ended up with 92 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt, Lysyk wrote.

Amato told the auditor general he did not immediately open the envelope but “kept them in a stack in his office” along with other similar requests. He said he did not tell the developers the government was considering removing land from the Greenbelt.

“The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff,” the auditor general told reporters.

Lysyk suggested politics governed the timeline of Greenbelt land removals.

She found the tight timeline did not have a clear justification. Instead, it was chosen to “complete the project so that the announcement of Greenbelt land removals and additions could coincide with the government’s fall housing legislation.”

The three-week sprint was controlled by strict confidentiality agreements that prevented the team from consulting with anyone about its work. That made it impossible for the government to get feedback from experts and partners like local cities, ministries and Indigenous communities, the auditor general found.

Lysyk’s report said the criteria for removing land also shifted under the feet of the Greenbelt Project Team.

Originally, the group was asked to identify if land could be serviced for wastewater, roads and other local infrastructure. After telling Amato it would be impossible within the three-week window, Lysyk’s report said the province agreed to look just at Greenbelt land that bordered existing built-up areas.

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The report also said questions about environmental and agricultural issues with building housing on the land were included in the original scope. However, when the Greenbelt team decided all eight of the first batch of land assigned to it would fall foul of the rule, the requirement was dropped.

Changes were also made to several sites ultimately removed from the Greenbelt in order to make them fit other criteria, the report said.

“We thought there would be a financial process to look at and we thought there would be an environment to process. And so we were ready to go and look at those processes,” Lysyk said.

“And then we recognized that there were no processes here. This was this exercise.”

Lysyk said the process had such a “narrow project scope and tight timelines” that the Greenbelt team only found one additional site it would consider removing. Despite the fact that 630 requests were sent to the province asking to remove land from the Greenbelt, the team reviewed only 22 pieces of land.

Ninety-five per cent of the land parcels reviewed by the team were handed to them by Clark’s chief of staff, and 92 per cent of the acreage removed from the Greenbelt was contained in five land sites passed on to the Housing Minister’s chief of staff from two developers.

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“As a result of what we saw during the course of our work, we put recommendations in here that we think are needed to be looked at,” Lysyk said.

Ford denies wrongdoing

As part of her probe, Lysyk interviewed Premier Ford, who denied having personal conversations with developers about the land swap or personally selecting the lands that were eventually removed from the Greenbelt.

The premier, the report states, was given a briefing on Nov. 1, 2022 — one day before the announcement was made public — and was then shown the 15 pieces of land slated for removal.

Ford claimed that was the first time he reviewed the specific list of Greenbelt lands and indicated that he did not “instruct political or non-political staff to have certain land sites removed from the Greenbelt.”

Elected officials, the report indicates, also attempted to pin the blame on Amato as the linchpin in the Greenbelt plan.

Click to play video: 'Feds have not reviewed AG report on Ford government’s Greenbelt land removal yet: Guilbeault'
Feds have not reviewed AG report on Ford government’s Greenbelt land removal yet: Guilbeault

“The Premier and the Minister of Housing have communicated to us that they were unaware that the pre-selection of lands for removal from the Greenbelt was biassed, controlled and directed by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff,” the report states.

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Internally, however, civil servants tasked with carrying out the government’s expectations had a clear view of the chain of command: “Political staff understood that most of the land sites were provided by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff, who took direction from the Minister and Premier’s Office.”

The report also indicated that while the Ford government has “no current intention” of carving out additional lands from the Greenbelt, senior staff in the Premier’s Office believed that to be the plan.

“The Chief of Staff of the Premier’s Office confirmed the intention was to continue with future land removal from the Greenbelt and that the 2022 process to alter the boundaries of the Greenbelt had not been intended to be a one-time exercise,” the report said.

Greenbelt lands not needed for housing target

Under a volley of criticism from opposition parties, the Ford government has argued land had to be removed from the Greenbelt to meet its target of 1.5 million new homes in Ontario by 2031.

The auditor general’s report, however, says a range of key planning figures told the province the Greenbelt could remain untouched without impacting its housing goal.

Top municipal planning staff in Durham, Halton and York Regions — where the land removed from the Greenbelt is located — told the auditor general the removed land was not required to meet the housing targets.

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They said much of the land would be difficult to service under the timelines set by the province.

They also said housing targets to deliver the 1.5 million homes had already been assigned to them by October 2022, before protected land was removed.

Those targets came from a separate team at the province, which told the auditor general it had assigned housing targets “without the knowledge” the Greenbelt would be carved up within weeks.

No enforcement plan in place

Lysyk’s report found the province has not put any formal process in place to monitor if developers actually make good on their promise to build housing in time.

One of the key conditions for removing land from the Greenbelt was that the construction of new homes begins no later than 2025. If developers didn’t make progress, the Ford government had promised to return the land to the Greenbelt.

“However, we found that, as (of) June 2023, neither the Housing Ministry nor the government had further defined their expectations in order for performance indicators to be established and targets set so that progress and results can be objectively monitored, measured and publicly reported,” the report said.

The time constraints put on Greenbelt staff mean the Ford government doesn’t know how much of the land will be built on by 2025, the report found.

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“If these conditions are not met, the government will return these lands to the Greenbelt without hesitation,” the government told the auditor.

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