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Ford government rezoned land after developer donations, despite ministry pushback

Internal emails shed new light on the government's decision-making process when it opened up Greenbelt and other land for development
A Ford government change to Peel Region's official plan that affected mostly Greenbelt land.

Internal emails shed new light on a flurry of developer requests and provincial approvals in Caledon, a sprawling GTA region of towns, villages and farmland, largely inside the Greenbelt's southern border.

The Ford government changed land designations for four sites in or near the Greenbelt to allow residential development after donations from those who made the requests — and in half the cases, despite warnings from ministry staff. It now plans to roll back these changes and many others.

The emails were obtained by advocacy group Environmental Defence and published online late last month.

Caledon is outlined in a dotted line. The yellow stars represent sites rezoned by the Ford government at developers' requests. Google Maps

13070 Heart Lake Rd.

During the last provincial election campaign, incumbent for Dufferin—Caledon, Progressive Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones, now the deputy premier, held a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser. Steven Silverberg, the president of Cedar City Developments, bought a ticket, but told The Trillium he did not attend the dinner. 

Silverberg owned a Greenbelt-adjacent parcel of land in Jones' riding, which he bought in 2021. It was a "split" designation — part was designated "employment" land, which does not allow housing development. He made a written request in October to rezone all of it as "community" land, which does.

Staff at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing were wary, writing in internal notes that the changes "would be difficult to accommodate" because they could conflict with Peel Region's own boundary expansion study. The region had mapped out a split designation for the lands as recently as March 2022.

But Silverberg got his wish. As part of the government's sweeping Nov. 4, 2022 changes to the Greenbelt and other protected land, it removed the "employment" designation from his parcel, opening it up for residential development.

The location of Cedar City Developments' parcel of land. Greenbelt Foundation
A map showing some of the provincial government's land-use changes announced on Nov. 4, 2022, including Silverberg's parcel, outlined in red in the top-left. Environmental Registry of Ontario

Other developers who also bought tickets to the Jones fundraiser include Nick and Fabrizio Cortellucci, Silvio Guglietti and Jack Eisenberger. Several land development lawyers also attended, as well as Kevin Powers of Project Advocacy, a public affairs firm that helps developers facing local opposition.

Jones' office didn't respond to a request for comment.

13291 Airport Rd.

Giampaolo Investments Ltd. asked the government to rezone its parcel of land from "agricultural," which comes with strict limits on development, to "employment," which allows for large projects like warehouses.

The land sits a half-hour drive north of Pearson International Airport. The planned Highway 413 will run just south of it. And other companies like Amazon and UPS have recently opened "massive distribution warehouse[s]" in Caledon, noted Mark De Souza, the director of real estate for Giampaolo Investments Ltd., in an Oct. 6, 2022 email to ministry staff.

De Souza argued his company should be next.

"The proposal contemplates a 120,000SF industrial building fronting onto Airport Road, with approximately 400-500 truck and trailer parking located at the rear of the property," he wrote.

Two and a half weeks later, a ministry staffer emailed her colleague to say they had "just received direction" to redesignate the parcel as employment land. Less than a month after De Souza sent the email, the province made it official.

A map sent internally by Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing staff showing 13291 Airport Rd. as a planned "New Employment Area." Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing
A map showing the change to 13291 Airport Rd. announced on Nov. 4, 2022. Environmental Registry of Ontario

In 2018, the Giampaolo Group donated a combined $30,000 to Ontario Proud, a meme page largely funded by the development industry to buoy the Tories' election chances.

Someone sharing De Souza's name donated $1,200 to the PCs that year.

Names matching those of Giampaolo Group's leadership team have also donated to the PC Party and its candidates:

  • Todd Kerr (president of real estate for Giampaolo Investments Limited): $7,325 between 2017–2021
  • Joseph Caruso (executive vice-chairman of Giampaolo Group): $4,683 between 2017–19
  • Gary Diamond (president of Quantum Lifecycle Partners): $1,500 in 2021
  • Anthony Kafato (president of Venture Steel): $500 in 2017

De Souza and Giampaolo Group did not respond to a request for comment on the land parcel or whether the donors were Giampaolo employees. 

33 Pillsworth Rd.

Ministry staff had major issues with this request from Alvit Developments to put housing on a small patch of green space between Highway 50 and a large industrial park.

"A conversion of this property is likely to have negative impacts on the viability of the employment area [by] creating an 'island' of residential development within an employment Area. This employment conversion request was not submitted to the Region for consideration and there are no planning studies in support of this request," a civil servant wrote on Oct. 18. 

“Given the significant impact this conversion request would have on the [Provincially Significant Employment Zone] and the lack of supporting planning considerations, this conversion request should not proceed," he wrote.

Alvit Developments' proposed housing site (starred, bottom right) is nestled between a highway and industrial businesses. Google Maps

Less than a week later, then-housing minister Steve Clark's office told them to do it anyway.

"Direction received proceed with conversion," a staff note reads.

Alvit is run by Goffredo and Robert Vitullo of the prominent Vaughan developer family. Names matching Goffredo and Robert's have donated a combined $23,054 to Progressive Conservatives between 2015 and 2023. People with names matching their relatives, Alberto, Vincenzo and Veronica Vitullo of Canvas Developments, are also prolific PC donors.

A Caledon spokesperson said the conversion was requested by Alvit and Caledon itself. The provincial government announced the change to Peel's official plan on Nov. 4, 2022 — contingent on the region being satisfied after doing a study on the effects.

Goffredo and Robert Vitullo didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Brookvalley Lands

Brookvalley Project Management asked for nearly 200 hectares of "prime agricultural" land, mostly in the Greenbelt, to be rezoned to "rural," which has fewer restrictions on development. 

"No supporting studies," reads a note by ministry staff.

The land sits just 10 km from Mayfield Golf Club, another Greenbelt parcel that was rezoned after a request from a PC donor and appointee

Brookvalley is run by Nick Cortellucci, whose family has donated tens of thousands to the Ford government and benefited from at least four of its minister's zoning orders (MZOs) that fast-tracked development. The PCs appointed his brother Mario, who sat at the premier's table at his daughter's wedding, to York Region's police oversight board.

The developer argued the parcel wasn't being used as farmland. 

"Also, the proximity of the proposed new Highway 413 alignment to the north also is a deterrent to the long-term agricultural viability of the Subject Lands," its submission reads.

Cortellucci got the good news on Nov. 4, 2022.

The lands that Brookvalley Project Management wanted rezoned are outlined in blue. The red-coloured land inside the blue outline is prime agricultural land, almost all of which is part of the Greenbelt. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing
The approved change as illustrated in the Ford government's changes to Peel Region's official plan, announced on Nov. 4, 2022. Environmental Registry of Ontario

The Ford government has been trying to rezone the area since at least 2020, when it issued an MZO after Brookvalley proposed to build 4,551 mostly single-family homes there. It backed off from including Greenbelt land in the MZO in 2023 after local pushback.

Brookvalley didn't respond to a request for comment.

Changes to be walked back — maybe

Spokespeople for the premier and housing minister didn't respond to a request for comment about how these changes came about, and whether any discussions took place with developers, aside from the formal requests.

Seeking to clean up the perception that the Ford government was giving favours to powerful friends, new-ish Housing Minister Paul Calandra plans to roll back his government's changes to 12 regional official plans, including Peel's, which covers all the changes in this story.

But in a letter to mayors last week, Calandra said they can let him know by Dec. 7 if they want to keep any of the provincial changes, meaning some or all of these zoning changes may yet become reality.

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