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Greenbelt removals picked by housing minister’s top staffer at developers’ behest: auditor

In a bombshell report, Ontario’s auditor general says much of the land removed from the Greenbelt was initially proposed by developers with access to the housing minister’s chief of staff
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark speaking to reporters in Toronto on Sept. 10, 2018.

A top political staffer in Premier Doug Ford’s government led the crafting of last year’s Greenbelt changes, directing civil servants to evaluate lands chosen by developers for removal, Ontario’s auditor general wrote in her bombshell investigation.

About 92 per cent of the land removed from Ontario’s signature protected area last year was made up of five sites that had been proposed to Ryan Amato, Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, by two developers who sat with him at an industry dinner in September 2022, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found.

“The exercise to change the Greenbelt boundaries in Fall 2022 cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” Lysyk wrote in the report she published on Wednesday.

Lysyk’s report seems to contradict many claims the premier and housing minister have made about how the government determined what land to remove from the Greenbelt last year.

Ford and Minister Steve Clark were defiant Wednesday. They acknowledged the process of selecting the sites was flawed and rushed, but Ford said the ends justified the means.

“We've admitted many times today and I'll continue to admit that we're going to correct the process,” Ford said. “But what matters to the people of Ontario is making sure they can afford a home, an attainable home, an affordable home, a regular home like a condo or a rental.”

The Ford government unveiled plans to remove 7,400 total acres of land in 15 parcels from the Greenbelt on Nov. 4, and later finalized them in December.

Since the plans were announced, they’ve been central to an intense and ongoing controversy for the Ford government. This has been largely because several developers whose companies own lands removed from the Greenbelt, or otherwise have ties to the Progressive Conservatives, bought the lands since 2018, the same year the PCs were elected, and that Ford promised they “won’t touch the Greenbelt."

The owners of the 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see an $8.3 billion increase in the value of their properties, according to an estimate from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation provided to the auditor.

The estimate was from 2016, however, and Lysyk acknowledged their worth is “definitely more” today. 

The report Lysyk released on Wednesday — which was based on interviews with political staff, members of Ontario’s public service, cabinet office staff, developers, lobbyists, municipal officials, and others — finds developers were intimately involved in selecting the lands, and in certain cases even proposed the sites themselves.

Amato, the housing minister’s chief of staff, had “substantial control” over the process and gave “preferential treatment” to developers with “direct access” to him, the auditor’s report says.

Last fall, Amato set the criteria for selecting which Greenbelt lands to remove, Lysyk found. He gave this criteria to the public service in early October, but later altered them so sites he wanted would be included. This included removing criteria that the lands were readily serviceable with roads, sewage and utilities, and that they were free from certain agricultural and environmental designations. 

Overall, 22 sites were considered for removal. Amato proposed 21, while public servants put forward just one. 

Public servants were only given three weeks for their work and had to sign confidentiality agreements, preventing them from getting comprehensive information about the land from municipalities and other ministries. 

Amato got maps and other information from the developers instead, Lysyk found.

Of the 15 sites ultimately removed, 14 were proposed by Amato and one was from the public service.

Two of the 21 land sites Amato put forward were given to him by two developers “in packages” at a Sept. 14, 2022 dinner hosted by the Building and Land Development Association. These lands — owned by TACC Developers and Green Lane Bathurst LP — amounted to about two-thirds of the land that was later removed.

The day after the dinner, Sept. 15, Green Lane Bathurst LP finalized purchasing for $80 million the site it proposed for removal. 

The day after that, on Sept. 16, is when Amato first told Housing Ministry staff he wanted to move forward with site-specific Greenbelt land removal. 

Shortly after the dinner, one of the same developers proposed three more sites — two owned by TACC and one by Fieldgate Homes — that were also later removed from the Greenbelt. 

Altogether, the five sites Amato was given by the developers accounted for 92 per cent of the removed Greenbelt land.

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, who is continuing to work on his own Greenbelt-focused investigation, wrote earlier this year that Ford and Clark told him a very different story about how removed lands were selected.

“They (Ford and Clark) advised that the selection of the affected lands was made by public servants who were subject to an enhanced confidentiality protocol and that the minister was briefed and accepted their proposal only a few days before he presented it to cabinet,” the integrity commissioner wrote in a Jan. 18 update to his investigation. “And the government made its announcement shortly thereafter.” 

In her report, Lysyk said Clark told her office that “he was unaware” of what Amato was working on, but that the minister “ought to have known that the chief of staff was the primary recipient and provider of lands to the Greenbelt Project Team,” the group of public servants he was working with.

Opposition party leaders called for both Clark and Amato to be fired over the AG’s report, but neither was on Wednesday. 

Ford and Clark have both repeatedly defended removing the lands from the protected area, justifying the move by saying it’s so 50,000 homes can be built on the lands, to contribute to its housing goal. 

They continued to do so after the report was published Wednesday, attributing the pressure to build housing on the federal government’s immigration targets.

“Failing to act threatens to erode Canadians’ so far unwavering support for immigration at a time when our economic success depends on welcoming skilled newcomers that fill critical labour gaps,” Ford said.

The premier and housing minister have also each denied that anyone in the government tipped off developers about its plans before announcing them last Nov. 4, and continued to do so Wednesday.

The auditor’s report notes that one of the developers, Flato’s Shakir Rehmatullah, attended the premier’s daughter’s wedding on Sept. 25, 2022.

Starting two days after the wedding and continuing over the next week, a lawyer representing Rehmatullah emailed Amato asking for three sites in York Region to be removed from the Greenbelt, which ultimately were.

Asked how Rehmatullah and his lawyer knew to contact Amato, Ford was again defiant.

“Well, no one, no one knew. No conversation ever, ever was discussed, I can guarantee you that,” he said. “I found out the day of when we went to cabinet, which happens frequently, happens all the time.”

Meanwhile, Clark and Amato were also telling Lysyk slightly different stories about where future Greenbelt land removals fit into the government’s housing plans. 

Amato told Lysyk the Greenbelt removals were “intended to be the first of many future rounds to remove land from the Greenbelt,” Lysyk wrote.  

“Other landowners would have an opportunity to request that their land be assessed for removal in future rounds; and this was an initial attempt to put in place a continuous process that would be evaluated and revised based on lessons learned,” she added. 

Clark told Lysyk “there is no current intention to prepare for a second round of land site removals.” 

In her report, Lysyk also wrote that the Ford government didn’t need to remove lands from the Greenbelt to reach its target of having 1.5 million new homes built in Ontario by 2031.

The auditor’s report says the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing had allocated the entirety of the supply needed to reach its target in October 2022, the month before the Greenbelt changes were announced.

Separate earlier reports released by the Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario, as well as Environmental Defence, have also suggested Greenbelt land doesn’t need to be built on for Ontario to reach its main housing goal.

The government’s target of having 1.5 million new homes built by 2031 was recommended by its housing affordability task force.

“Ontario must build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years to address the supply shortage,” the task force wrote in a report it released in February 2022.

As well, Lysyk’s report also notes that the government announced its plans to remove the Greenbelt lands before determining the cost of necessary nearby infrastructure upgrades. 

This meant the planned changes were announced before the government assessed how the costs of building things like new roads, sewers, and utilities would be split between developers and taxpayers, Lysyk’s report says.

In the reflections section of her report, Lysyk said that through her office’s work it “became aware of how non-elected political staff, and developers and their lobbyists, can undermine the technical and operational work of the non-political public service in provincial ministries, and the work of municipalities and conservation authorities.”

“We further concluded that fair, transparent and respectful consultation with the people of Ontario did not take place.”

Editor's note: This story was updated with comments from the premier and Housing minister after its initial publication. 

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