(Bloomberg) -- Ontario’s housing minister violated the province’s integrity rules in his decision to allow development on previously protected lands, according to a government report that could deepen the controversy around the move.
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Housing Minister Steve Clark failed to properly oversee the process that saw 15 properties in the protected greenbelt around Toronto removed or redesignated for development, advancing the interests of some landowners over others, according to the report from Ontario Integrity Commissioner David Wake on Wednesday.
Controversy over the greenbelt decision has dogged Premier Doug Ford’s government for months as he attempts to solve a housing crisis that has emerged as a central political issue across the country. With rents at record highs and home prices rising, Ford has defended the decision to allow development on the 2,700 acres of protected land as necessary to meet his government’s goal of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031. But critics have pointed out that the commission, which came up with the housing goal, also said it could be achieved while leaving the greenbelt lands untouched.
During his first term in office, Ford repeatedly said his government wouldn’t touch the greenbelt, before reversing course in late 2022.
The integrity commissioner’s report didn’t examine whether development should be allowed on the greenbelt, only the process used to decide which lands should get redeveloped. The report found that 14 of the 15 properties selected for redevelopment came from the housing minister’s former chief of staff, who came up with them after a haphazard process that didn’t include a public call for submissions, consultations or assessments, and left many landowners unaware of a potential change in policy.
The commissioner faulted Clark for allowing the selection process to be rushed, not supervising it once it was underway and not examining how the properties were chosen before sending the list for cabinet approval. The commissioner recommended the minister receive a reprimand from the legislature, where his party, the Progressive Conservatives, have a majority.
The integrity commissioner’s findings follow a report by Ontario’s auditor general that highlighted similar faults with the process and spurred the resignation of the housing minister’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato. That report found that two developers, dealing directly with Amato, recommended 92% of the acreage removed from the greenbelt. When civil servants found that most of the sites Amato proposed weren’t adequately evaluated against environmental and agricultural protections, he decided to drop that criteria from the selection process, the report said. In total, the owners of the 15 redesignated sites could see a collective C$8.3 billion ($6.1 billion) increase in their property values, the auditor general found.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have said they are assessing whether to investigate the redesignations following a referral from the provincial police force.
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