Newly unearthed documents show the Doug Ford PC government, including his own office, worked behind the scenes to force urban boundary expansions on cities and regions to benefit developers with ties to the ruling party and its leader.

Information that has come to light reveals a pattern of behaviour by the PCs, who were determined to open up thousands of acres of prime agricultural land and greenspace for sprawl developers to bulldoze and construct subdivision housing, despite municipal smart growth policies designed to create transit friendly complete communities.

These more dense projects would prevent land speculators and some of the province’s most powerful builders from making billions of dollars by destroying land that was not included in the urban boundary areas meant for residential and commercial development. 

“The documents (obtained through a series of freedom of information requests) also show… lands were designated for development despite being rejected by both municipal planners and provincial Municipal Affairs planning experts,” Ecojustice, which worked on behalf of Environmental Defence to obtain the previously shrouded evidence, wrote in a press release Monday. 

The documents “show that it was partisan Minister’s Office staff — not civil service experts — who directed changes to municipal Official Plans in ways that favoured select landowners and sprawl developers.”

Ministries not involved in housing or municipal affairs, and Ford’s own office, were working behind the scenes to override local planning control over zoning and land use “as early as January 2022, prior to the June 2022 election, and yet the government still kept Ontario voters in the dark.” 

Ford’s office asked for information on lands in Nobleton, about 20 minutes north-west of Toronto, wanting to know if they were being directed for inclusion in that region’s expanded urban boundary, under the PC plan. The properties were owned by Shakir Rehmatullah, a friend of Ford who attended the Premier’s daughter’s wedding.

The disturbing disclosures have led to even more calls for sweeping investigations into Ford and his PC colleagues, who since their election in 2018 have dismantled environmental protections, gutted conservation authorities, rammed two major highway projects through the legislature and, as the latest documents lay bare, strong armed municipalities to open up more land—all to meet the demands of powerful developers, including those Ford promised would be given “a big chunk” of the Greenbelt if they helped get him elected five years ago. 

The RCMP is currently conducting a criminal investigation into the 15 Greenbelt land swaps; Hamilton Council is calling for a probe into the gutting of conservation authorities; advocates and Opposition leaders are demanding investigations into the emerging urban boundary expansion scandal and the use of MZOs by the PCs to circumvent public planning processes. 

These demands come on the heels of the damning findings of Ontario’s Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner who in the summer exposed the shocking conduct behind the PC government’s Greenbelt land removals, which stood to create almost $8.3 billion of value for developers, many with ties to Ford.   

Ecojustice and Environmental Defence, which have worked for years to protect Ontario’s Greenbelt, critical agricultural areas and other pieces of land vital to local ecosystems and the broader environment, received approximately 7,000 pages of government documents, Official Plan drafts, decision packages, email exchanges and other correspondences related to urban boundary expansions that have been forced on municipalities across southern Ontario since 2021. 

Partisan Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) staff, shown in the documents, were colluding directly with select landowners and sprawl developers to direct changes to municipal Official Plans. In some cases, these lands, which were not needed for population growth that can easily be accommodated within the existing urban boundary, were slated for development after being rejected by both municipal planners and Municipal Affairs planning experts. 

The alarming details exposed in the FOI packages show a clear pattern of behaviour by a PC government whose leader has recently admitted it was a “mistake” to go after the Greenbelt so developers close to Ford could create almost $8.3 billion of real estate value from the largest protected greenspace in the world. 

“The government continues to refuse to disclose a wide range of information about the process that led to the Greenbelt removals and forced urban expansions into greenspace,” Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman said in a statement released with the documents. “The public deserves to know the truth about the removals.”

The documents are part of an almost year-long battle to get information from the MMAH, resulting in an order by Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) to release previously shrouded details that should be in the hands of the public. Along with reams of information contained in the packages, much if it is redacted on the basis of Cabinet Privileges. 

Environmental Defence is in a battle with the Ontario government over other documents related to the Greenbelt swaps which were also requested in late 2022, along with the just released urban boundary expansion information, but those have yet to be handed over, despite an order by the IPC that demanded a decision by September 15.

“These documents confirm once again that the Ford government is prioritizing wealthy, well-connected insiders over building homes that ordinary people can afford,” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement following the release of the urban boundary documents on Monday. “It’s clear where this government’s priorities lie — and it’s not with the people of Ontario.”

Despite a need for more affordable housing, Ford and the developers close to him want sprawl to cover the thousands of acres of land they have already assembled, outside existing areas slated for growth.

A report by registered professional planner Kevin Eby for The Alliance for a Livable Ontario offers an alternative solution of medium density communities. His analysis shows there is more than enough land within existing urban boundaries across the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) to accommodate the housing targets imposed by the provincial government, a sentiment that has been shared by other planners, politicians and environmentalists. Even Ford’s own expert housing panel concluded the targets could be achieved within existing urban boundaries, but its direction has been ignored.

Eby’s report shows where the idea of forced sprawl is coming from.

Historical home buying decisions, based on decades-old considerations, “fail to incorporate many of the changing factors affecting recent and future housing choice,” Eby writes.

“Considerations underlying housing choice in the GGH today are significantly different than they were 20 years ago, and every indication is that such change will continue to occur well into the future.”

Sprawl developers influencing the PC government, as shown in the Auditor General’s investigation report, have already purchased the land to build more subdivisions, and regardless of changing market trends and financial realities, the PC government’s loyalty to these powerful builders has now been exposed.

Ford continues to ignore the need for affordable housing, complete communities and homes around major transit infrastructure. Halton Hills is a particularly shocking example of the PCs’ disregard for municipal planning aimed at smart growth. The documents released Monday, along with information from the investigation report by Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner this summer, show how the PCs trampled all over the town’s plan to create walkable, complete neighbourhoods connected by urban features, overriding local planning to instead force sprawl on the community.  

In 2021, former Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk released a daming investigation finding that between 2018 and 2021, the PC government issued 44 MZOs, a planning tool used to expedite the traditional planning process in extraordinary circumstances. In the decade prior to the election of Ford in 2018, the tool was used approximately once per year. 

In May, the PCs blindsided Mississauga with an MZO that wiped out over two decades of planning between the city and the community around the massive Lakeview Village redevelopment project. It was doubled in size, overnight, from the previous 8,000 units to 16,000. Despite significant concessions the City had already made for Lakeview Community Partners, the development consortium went straight to the PCs, who ordered the decision with zero input from City officials or residents. 

Farther north, the Town of Caledon is scrambling to suddenly plan for MZOs ordered by Ford’s government. 

“Twenty years ago we never heard of MZOs, but this provincial government is using every tool in its toolbox to put forward its agenda which includes cutting the red tape,” Caledon Councillor Dave Sheen said in May when the Town updated its MZO procedures and policies. “And from their point of view that’s what this is, a lot of red tape.”

During Ford’s tenure, the Town of Caledon has been handed four MZOs for various warehousing projects. But while most counciillors have voiced their opposition to the planning tool — Mayor Annette Groves has stated many times she is not a “fan” of MZOs — not all municipal leaders can be given a pass. An FOI document released in April confirmed that former mayor Allan Thompson, who has close ties to Ford, had written a letter of support to the Province for the issuance of an MZO, without the support or knowledge of the rest of council.

The MZOs issued within the Town have also been located within the pathway of the proposed 413 highway. The GTA West corridor has been a hot topic within the Town as former mayor Thompson was blatantly in support of the project while Groves, then a regional councillor and now mayor, stands in strong opposition. 

The documents obtained by Environmental Defence reveal PC staffers were acting as if the 400-series highway is a done deal. It is currently under review by the federal Impact Assessment Agency. 

“It would be the white area shown in the crop and would include everything south of the Highway 413, including the hatched area, but exclude the small white triangle in the top right hand corner of the cropped image,” an email from political staffer Jennifer Le regarding the settlement area expansion, from September 2022 stated.

Despite falling back on earlier promises to keep his hands off the Greenbelt, Ford has been pushing his highway project which would open up thousands of acres of protected greenspace for development.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles announced Monday she had received documents showing the Ford government has granted 18 MZOs to developer “friends” that were present at his daughter’s wedding last year—the same number of MZOs the Liberals gave out over 15 years.

Recent legislation has amplified the use of this tool. Bill 97, which received royal assent in June, has made the process even easier for developers and the government to sidestep planning legislation, to approve developer applications through an MZO, instead of the traditional local, public planning process.

“I want to see the government and the Premier come clean about the corrupt deals that led to these MZOs,” Stiles said in a press conference Monday. “At this point, you can’t look at any of these deals without the lens of corruption of this government.”

Ford claimed at a press conference Tuesday that he did not direct staff to take any action on lands, dodging most questions.

Opposition leaders said the secretive process around the urban boundary expansions was disturbingly similar to the one used for the Greenbelt land swaps. 

Ford said on Tuesday that provincial watch dogs have “cleared his office”. The documents from Environmental Defence suggest otherwise.

“I understand the advice from the team that the urban systems survey doesn’t change anything but po (Premier’s Office) has asked me for a picture to make sure it’s captured,” Ryan Amato, the former housing minister’s chief of staff (who resigned in the summer) wrote in an email to other ministry staff last November. 

Ford reiterated that he did not instruct anyone about any land parcels. His office refused to comment any further.

At his press conference Tuesday, Ford said he is the one who told Housing Minister Paul Calandra to reverse the urban boundary expansions, but quickly followed the statement, saying he agrees with the plan to create more development by increasing the footprint for growth.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), the lobby group of residential developers, released a damning statement condemning the decision to reverse the expansions. 

“[BILD] is extremely disappointed in today’s announcement by the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Honourable Paul Calandra, and calls it a setback for the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) future housing and employment spaces supply,” the statement reads. “As much as five years or more of work and millions of taxpayers’ dollars went into the development of the regional official plans through the municipal comprehensive review process. Today’s announcement sets the addition of housing and employment spaces supply in Peel, Halton and York back decades and the forward-looking impacts of this will be felt by prospective new home owners for the rest of the decade.”

BILD said it will work with all levels of government to get the targeted 1.5 million homes built across Ontario by 2031. 

When the Region of Peel’s 11,000-acre urban boundary expansion, forced by the Province, was posted on the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO), it received 40 comments, only five of which were in support of the boundary expansion. But the Province approved the plan without adjustments.

The Region of Peel voted to expand its urban boundary into farmland and other protected greenspaces in April 2022, in order to align with provincial guidelines to plan for growth to 2051, which in Peel would see a population growth of approximately 700,000. 

Despite the April 8, 2022 meeting including several delegations and dozens of letters from residents and organizations unanimously opposed to the expansion, regional councillors, other than Caledon’s Annette Groves, ignored their evidence and concerns. 

Mississauga and Regional Councillor Carolyn Parrish, who was at the time chair of the Regional Planning and Growth Committee, expressed concern that if council did not vote for the expansion, the PCs would hand down an order to expand, as was later seen in Hamilton and Halton Region. Groves, now the Caledon mayor, was the only one to vote against the expansion.

Parrish did not respond to The Pointer’s request for comment on whether she felt any pressure from the development industry to force the boundary expansion in April, or if she now has any intention of introducing a motion to walk back the expansion.

The same questions were posed to Regional Chair Nando Iannicca, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, and Bonnie Crombie — currently on leave from her role as mayor of Mississauga to pursue the provincial Liberal leadership. No responses were received.

Both the Green Party and the Liberal Party have called on the RCMP to expand its ongoing Greenbelt investigation to include the urban boundary expansions. Stiles and the NDP have also requested an Auditor General investigation into the matter.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 01, 2023 at 13:31

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario

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