Ford government set to expand Greenbelt protected area while proceeding with controversial highway nearby
Feb. 17, 2021
The Ontario government is moving to expand the 800,000-hectare Greenbelt of protected lands around the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Star has learned.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark will launch a 60-day public consultation on Wednesday to determine ways to safeguard more farmland, wetlands, forests, and watersheds from development.
“We’re not going to entertain any conversations about a land swap,” Clark said in an interview Tuesday.
“Our government will not consider any proposals to remove or develop any part of it,” the minister said, stressing that existing legislative protections would remain.
“We’re not going to go back and look at why certain lands were put into the Greenbelt in 2005. We’re not changing any of the policies that the (previous Liberal) government … we’re not going to review those policies about infrastructure,” he said.
“As part of this consultation, people will acknowledge that infrastructure can be built because of the Greenbelt Act. Highways can be built, sewage pipes can be built, infrastructure is allowed in the Greenbelt, so we’re not proposing to make any changes to that section.”
That suggests the contentious $6-billion Hwy. 413 GTA West highway proposal through Vaughan, Caledon, Orangeville, and Milton would not be affected by an expanded Greenbelt.
But Clark insisted the Progressive Conservatives want “to build upon” Green Leader Mike Schreiner’s 2019 private member’s bill, the Paris Galt Moraine Conservation Act, which has been mired in a legislative committee for two years.
“Our approach is to use the Greenbelt Act as an opportunity to expand the Greenbelt in that area,” the minister said, referring to the swath of land around Guelph.
He said the Tories also hope to better protect environmentally sensitive urban river valleys, including Toronto’s Don River and Humber River as well as Duffins Creek in Ajax and Pickering.
There are already 21 such urban river valleys and wetlands in the Greenbelt.
“I think people will respond positively to this more focused approach by the government. Ultimately we want to move forward from protection of the Greenbelt to actually growing the Greenbelt.”
The governing Conservatives have a complicated relationship with the Greenbelt, which was created by former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty in 2005.
Three years ago, when he was campaigning for the Tory leadership, Doug Ford made headlines when video leaked of him assuring developers he would “open up chunks of the Greenbelt” to build more “affordable housing.”
Even before he was elected premier in June 2018, Ford was forced to change his tune and pledged to protect the ecologically sensitive lands.
But in recent months, resignations from the Greenbelt Council, an arm’s-length advisory board -- including former Toronto mayor David Crombie, a one-time federal PC cabinet minister -- have fuelled criticism of the Tories and fears of more urban sprawl.
Crombie and others quit over Environment Minister Jeff Yurek’s new curbs on the power of conservation authorities to assess the environmental impact of developments.
Clark, who is stickhandling the Greenbelt expansion plan, which doesn’t fall under the Environment department’s purview, is mindful the Tories need to do a better job.
“We’ve got a great opportunity as a government in the remainder of this mandate to put a good, solid plan in place. This is a once in a generation opportunity,” he said.
That said, Clark conceded that his own liberal use of ministerial zoning orders (MZO) to fast-track pandemic development of long-term-care homes and affordable housing construction has triggered controversy.
“The MZOs that we’ve done on nonprovincial land have all been at the request of the municipality,” the minister said.
“I’ve been looking at all the letters where I’ve said ‘no,’ when it comes to the Greenbelt. I think we need to communicate those to the public a little more.”
Indeed, Clark provided 10 such rejection letters he sent between last Sept. 24 and Jan. 27 to municipal officials in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ajax, Pickering, Durham Region, Newmarket, and Richmond Hill denying permission to override the Greenbelt.
“I think people will be surprised about the amount of MZOs I’ve turned down. We need to do a better job in communicating those to the public,” he said.
Asked about the ongoing standoff with the city of Toronto over the Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company on Eastern Avenue land owned by the province, Clark said he “respected” Justice David Corbett’s rationale for halting the planned demolition.
“We put the consultation in place. I want to make sure that the people in those communities have their say,” he said.
City council opposed his MZO to tear down the abandoned century-old factory, which was on Toronto’s heritage register as a historically significant building, and construct three apartment towers, the smallest of which would contain 264 units of affordable housing. The others would be for market-priced condos.
However, Clark argued “there is an unfair perception out there” that the Tories are giving in to the whims of developers.
“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” he said, emphasizing that developers’ political donations to the party have no bearing on what gets approved.
“The first trigger for an MZO is that it has a (local municipal) council resolution. It takes that argument right off the table. It’s a council asking me to consider it.”Those who wish to weigh in on expanding the Greenbelt have until April 19 to email email@example.com or contact the Environmental Registry of Ontario.