The Ford government has backtracked on its promise not to touch the protected Greenbelt lands, announcing that it would open up 7,400 acres for new housing so developers can build 50,000 homes on that land.
In exchange, it would add 9,400 acres in different areas to the existing two-million-acre swath of agricultural, wetlands and environmentally sensitive land, the province said on Friday afternoon.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark conceded the surprise move was a flip-flop from his stance last year when he assured the Toronto Star, “we’re not going to entertain any conversations about a land swap” on the Greenbelt.
“It was a tough decision,” Clark said in an interview. “The situation has changed and our policy needed to change with it.
“There is a housing supply crisis and we need bold, transformative change,” he said.
Clark insisted the overall footprint of the Greenbelt would be 2,000 acres larger, including the Paris Galt Moraine and 13 urban river valleys in the Greater Golden Horseshoe — additional parcels he said would protect farmland as well as river valleys.
But Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Friday’s announcement will imperil more protected land in the future.
“If you open parts of the Greenbelt for development now there’s going to be huge pressure, especially from land speculators, to open up more parts that can go for development,” he said.
It’s not clear whether the proposed land swaps are of equivalent value, added Schreiner. If urban waterways are designated for protection, nobody’s going to be developing that land anyway in the city.
“To say that’s a one-for-one swap for farmland makes absolutely no sense.”
Tim Gray of environmental advocacy group Environmental Defence said the land swap would set a “terrible precedent.”
“This is a gift to sprawl developers and there is no rationale for it being needed for housing. It’s a bait and switch,” he said, adding that there are thousands of acres available and approved for housing.
Gray said the 13 urban river valleys are “already protected.”
“What they are doing here is breaking up the integrity of the policy. The Greenbelt is supposed to be permanent, it’s not supposed to get smaller; you can’t take important land out of it and add it somewhere else which is already protected. It’s very misleading.”
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The province says the 15 plots of land slated for development must be adjacent to existing Greenbelt boundaries and near an existing urban area close to sewage and water connections.
The developers who own the land would be expected to have detailed plans for housing construction to begin no later than 2025. They would need to show significant progress on building approvals by the end of next year or the province says it would return the land to the Greenbelt.
Among the areas under consideration for removal from the Greenbelt are plots in King, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Markham, Pickering, Clarington and Hamilton.
The government is proposing to add the Paris Galt Moraine in Erin, Ont., to the Greenbelt Area.
Ed McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation and Greenbelt Fund, said his group is still studying the government proposal. But generally his organization doesn’t support land swaps.
“We need to really be thinking about the impacts on the larger systems, whether those are the water resource systems, the agricultural systems or other natural systems that are really important to Ontario’s well-being and the things that have always made the Greenbelt really valuable,” he said.
In Ontario, it is possible to have the natural systems and water systems we value while growing the housing supply and addressing affordability, said McDonnell.
Vaughan Councillor Marilyn Iafrate says much of the Greenbelt in Vaughan is interspersed with housing developments.
“They are reducing the natural environment and adding land miles away. How does that benefit us?” she said.
The province plans to open up one plot of land in Vaughan that was designated protected countryside, considered the highest protection in the Greenbelt. It sits adjacent to a large subdivision being developed by a group of landowners including Silvio De Gasperis, owner of development company TACC. The subdivision was approved in 2020 through a Minister’s Zoning Order, a planning tool that allows the Minister of Municipal Affairs to change local zoning to expedite development.
But Shaun Collier, the mayor of Ajax, said the plot slated to be opened in his city, just north of the 401, could be a good idea depending on what it’s used for.
“I am comfortable if there is no environmental significance on the land to make some of those lands available (for development), but then other provincially significant lands should be added into the Greenbelt,” said Collier. “If it’s employment, I am all for it. If it’s high density mixed use, I am all for it, but if it’s single family detached urban sprawl, I am absolutely opposed.”
Clark’s Friday afternoon announcement — traditionally a time governments of all political stripes try to bury controversial news — comes less than two weeks after Clark tabled the sweeping More Homes Built Faster Act, a plan it says will help build 1.5 million more homes in Ontario by 2031 to accommodate an influx of two million more people.
The bill sets targets for new homes in municipalities, including 285,000 new units in Toronto.
Mississauga’s provincially imposed target is 120,000, while Brampton’s is 113,000, Markham’s 44,000, Vaughan’s 42,000, Oakville’s 33,000, Burlington’s 29,000, Richmond Hill’s 27,000, Whitby’s 18,000, Ajax’s 17,000 and Pickering’s 13,000.
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