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Destruction of the Greenbelt: Is it Worth it?

By Sara Dix

The Ontario Greenbelt is two million acres of protected land that should remain untouched by land developers as it is one of the most biologically rich areas that provides fresh air, clean water, and homes for wildlife. It is essential for the preservation and conservation of Ontario’s natural areas.

In September 2023, Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, announced the reversal of his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to land development. This was followed shortly after by the resignation of the Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, Steve Clark.

This decision was the result of massive public criticism and reports that revealed concerning information regarding the government’s decision-making process over the past year.

The Land Swap Announcement

When the Ford government announced their plans to open up thousands of acres of Greenbelt land for development in November 2022, Municipal Affairs Minister, Steve Clark, argued that it was a step to tackle the housing crisis in Ontario by building 50,000 new homes.

The fifteen pieces of Greenbelt planned to be developed, totalling 7,400 acres, were located in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area and 9,400 acres would have been added from somewhere else, which defines the term: “land swap.”

Public Outcry

However, The Narwhal points out that “experts say you can’t just draw a line around a piece of land, say it’s protected and assume it will all work out – how that land is connected to what’s around it will also define how successful conservation efforts might be.” Therefore, the plan did not consider the impacts of removing this land in terms of preserving the natural state of the Greenbelt.

Among one of the groups to criticize the government’s decision, Parks Canada warned that the removal of land from the Greenbelt would mean “irreversible harm” to the Rouge Urban National Park and that the government had violated an agreement with Parks Canada by committing to the plan.

Even the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers condemned the land swap plan by stating that “converting Greenbelt lands to residential development will hinder Ontario’s carbon targets without providing economic return, nor reduce the cost of buying a new home.”

The former provincial planner, Victor Doyle, who is credited as an architect of the protected area stated that the land swap “threatens the stability and certainty of the Greenbelt…It undermines its permanency…creates an incredibly powerful precedent that will weaken the Greenbelt significantly.”

Meanwhile, multiple investigations into misconduct within the government’s decision-making process began in December 2022 that questioned the influence of certain developers.

Ford Government Corruption

The Ontario Integrity Commissioner, David Wake, began an investigation into whether Clark breached rules that forbids MPPs from “making decisions or using insider information to improperly further their interests, or those of other people.” This report found that Clark failed to ensure that the process was completed properly and that developers had direct access to political staff.

The next scathing report on the government’s conduct came from Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, which questioned how much the developers stood to gain from the Greenbelt land sales and whether the plan was created in the public’s interest. The report revealed that certain developers were given “preferential treatment” and had a direct impact on the government’s decision. Of the 7,400 acres of land, 92% could be tied to three developers who would have direct access to the housing market and for the owners of fifteen sites, there could be an $8.3 billion increase in the land’s value.

Support for Development

The main group who has fully supported opening the Greenbelt are the developers themselves. Many in this industry have despised the Greenbelt since its creation because it places limits on where the developers can build and many have pushed to have their own land removed. As a result, they were able to influence the provincial government by utilizing their lobbying power.

There was also support from municipal leaders such as former mayor of Mississauga, Hazel McCallion, who agreed that the Greenbelt restrictions should be loosened to increase housing and preexisting infrastructure while maintaining the conservation efforts.

Is the Greenbelt Worth It?

The Greenbelt is worth it, frankly. It provides so much more than just land to develop into residential or commercial buildings and during a time when climate change is worsening, protecting as much wildlife and natural resources as possible is more essential than ever.