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Ford government tables bill to restore Greenbelt

Ontario’s premier promised to walk back his government’s scandal-plagued land-removal plan on Sept. 21
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers during a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. The announcement comes after a second cabinet minister resigned in the wake of the Greenbelt controversy.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra introduced legislation on Monday to reverse the Ford government’s controversy-sunk Greenbelt land removals.

The bill, titled the Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act, comes three-and-a-half weeks after Premier Doug Ford apologized for his government’s plan to allow developers to build homes on 7,400 acres of previously protected land.

“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise, and for that, I’m very, very sorry,” Ford said at a news conference in Niagara Falls on Sept. 21.

The plan had been a recurring controversy for the government since it was unveiled last Nov. 4. It became the source of a full-fledged crisis for Ford and the Progressive Conservatives this past summer.

Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner separately published scathing reports in August after investigating how the plan was conceived. Both provincial watchdogs determined the land-selection process was biased in favour of developers who had access to the staffer who orchestrated it.

Many of the developers standing to benefit from the changes had been previously reported as sharing personal connections with Ford or having been longtime major donors to the PC party. The auditor general projected that those owning land freed up for development in 15 different sites would benefit by upwards of $8.3 billion due to the increase in their value.

Before Ford promised to undo the Greenbelt removals, two cabinet ministers and two senior staffers involved in the scandal resigned. The PCs also experienced significant damage to their public opinion poll standing.

The Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act is made up of law changes aimed at following through with promises Calandra has made since Ford’s Sept. 21 apology.

It would see the 7,400 acres removed from the Greenbelt last year returned to the protected area. The 9,400 acres the government added, much of which were previously under separate protections, as part of its land swap would also remain in the Greenbelt.

The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act would be restored. It was repealed in tandem with the Greenbelt changes. The majority of the acreage that had its protections stripped last year had been in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, northeast of Toronto around where the York and Durham regions meet.

Calandra’s bill would also have the effect of requiring that future changes to the Greenbelt — additions or removals — be carried by way of a bill passed through the legislature. 

Greenbelt changes like those made by the government last year have been done through regulatory changes, which the sitting government can effectively do unilaterally. If the Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act is passed, a majority government would still have this ability, albeit through different means.

Calandra’s bill would also tweak laws protecting the government against being found liable for impacting developments.

“We also are not going to be providing any compensation with respect to any potential changes that were contemplated,” Calandra said in question period on Sept. 27.

Calandra described his bill’s proposed changes around liability on Monday as being “similar” to what has been in place when previous Greenbelt changes were made. 

However, a posting on the Environmental Registry of Ontario that’s associated with Calandra’s bill says proposed changes to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Act “would expand protections from liability.”

The explanatory note included in Calandra’s bill says personal liability changes within the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Act would specifically apply to protections for the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator (PLDF) and its deputies. 

As it’s currently written, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Act applies personal liability protections to its “deputy minister, or any employee of the Ministry, or anyone acting under the deputy minister’s authority.”

The PLDF had been responsible for negotiating deals with the developers owning land removed from the Greenbelt to ensure they paid for necessary nearby infrastructure upgrades, among other things.

Calandra also reaffirmed on Monday that a forthcoming review of the Greenbelt, as the legislation that created it requires every decade, will still go forward. 

“We will ensure that the next 10-year review… is led by an impartial, non-partisan group of experts — experts in conservation, agriculture and environmentalism,” the housing minister said.

“It will be focused on the preservation of our water resources, protection of natural areas, and preservation.”

There were a pair of postings made to the Environmental Registry of Ontario in association with Calandra’s new bill, which are open for the public to comment on. The legislation will not be passed until each postings’ 45-day consultation period finishes, Calandra said on Monday.

There are two sitting weeks left in the year after the Environmental Registry postings’ comment periods close, which could set up the Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act to be one of the last bills passed by Ontario lawmakers in 2023.

The opposition NDP attempted to restore the Greenbelt with legislation of their own a few weeks ago. On Sept. 25, the first day of the fall sitting at the Ontario legislature, NDP Leader Marit Stiles tried tabling her Greenbelt Restoration Act — which went no further than that.

In a rare procedural move, PC MPPs voted down the bill at its introductory stage.

The NDP bill that was defeated included provisions meant to protect the government from being sued by developers over its reversal.

Calandra said on Monday that his bill can be seen as a “reflection on the fact that we made a mistake and acknowledging that mistake.” 

Since Ford apologized for his government’s Greenbelt changes, the scandal has continued to be a cloud over the PC government.

Last Tuesday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that its sensitive and international investigations unit is investigating whether there was any criminal element behind the Greenbelt changes.

Ford’s office said in a statement that it would “fully co-operate” with the investigation. 

Calandra said on Monday that the RCMP had yet to contact any of the staff in his office or ministry “If they do, we will be ready to assist in any way,” he added.

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