The Ontario government is planning to expand the Greenbelt with what could be the largest addition since it was originally protected in 2005, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said Wednesday.

Though the announcement didn’t come with new proposed boundaries, Clark said the province is mulling whether to extend the Greenbelt to encompass more urban river valleys and the Paris-Galt Moraine, a rock formation that stretches across the northwestern Greater Toronto Area.

But even as the Progressive Conservatives work on the Greenbelt expansion, Clark confirmed the government will also forge ahead with the controversial GTA West Highway, which would cut through the area. It will also continue using ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) — a contentious method for fast-tracking developments that was the subject of a Canada's National Observer investigation released Tuesday — outside of the Greenbelt.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to undertake the largest expansion of Ontario's Greenbelt since its creation,” Clark told reporters at Queen’s Park Wednesday.

“Our initiative with growing the Greenbelt and the project in the GTA West corridor are two different projects. (The highway) is over a number of years. I'm talking about a plan for our government today that I think is very achievable.”

The announcement comes the day after an investigation by Canada’s National Observer showed the Ford government has been using MZOs to give the green light to developments in environmentally sensitive areas.

In nine cases, the directives ⁠benefitted developers who donated thousands to the Progressive Conservatives, the analysis showed. Several allowed projects in close proximity to the Greenbelt, which experts say can degrade the protected land.

The announcement also comes amid heightened scrutiny of environmental concerns around the GTA West highway, and one particular MZO that allowed a warehouse to be built on top of a protected wetland connected to Duffins Creek in Pickering, Ont.

Duffins Creek is of the urban river valleys the government is now looking at protecting, Clark said. He also added the province will not consider any requests to remove or develop parts of the Greenbelt.

Even as the Ford government mulls the Greenbelt expansion, it will also forge ahead with a highway that would cut through the area and continue fast-tracking developments outside the protected land’s boundaries. #onpoli

"Critical infrastructure like highways, transit and wastewater projects may be permitted in the Greenbelt, subject to strict environmental conditions," he said. "To emphasize: there will be no development in the Greenbelt."

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the expansion of the Greenbelt is a good thing, but it doesn’t make up for the government’s “agenda of environmental destruction.”

“I think this is an effort by the government to distract from all the criticism they're receiving,” Schreiner said in a phone interview.

“All the other things that the government is doing that degrades environmental protections — that ultimately affects the Greenbelt.”

The Greenbelt Foundation, a charity that stewards the Greenbelt, welcomed Clark’s announcement in a statement.

“The province has indicated an important path forward for extending and enhancing the unique benefits of the Greenbelt,” said the foundation’s CEO, Edward McDonnell.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, two groups representing developers and residential construction, urged the government in a joint statement to ensure there are “adequate lands for future growth.”

“The availability of new, appropriately zoned and serviced land to support the residential and commercial needs of the GTA is virtually nonexistent,” said BILD president and CEO Dave Wilkes in the statement.

“Expanding the Greenbelt, already the world’s largest, must be done in a systematic and logical manner, preserving the environment while at the same time considering all land needs and balancing the commercial and residential needs of the GTA.”

Government hinted at Greenbelt expansion in 2020 budget

The Greenbelt is a broad slice of protected land that stretches around the Golden Horseshoe region on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The 800,000-hectare area is larger than Prince Edward Island.

The government signalled its intention to expand the area in its budget last November. (Though the budget noted the province was eyeing lands around the East Humber Headwaters in King Township, Ont., Clark’s office confirmed that a proposal for that area is separate and still in the works.)

The Greenbelt already contains 21 river valleys that run through cities and towns. It’s not clear how much the government is planning to add to that network ⁠— in the case of the Duffins Creek, for example, Clark has already issued an MZO that would allow a wetland complex in the watershed to be destroyed. Clark also said lands around the Don River, which flows through Toronto into Lake Ontario, are under consideration.

The Paris-Galt Moraine, meanwhile, could present a substantial addition.

The moraine is made of two ridges that run parallel to each other and occasionally intersect, formed by glacial activity. The formation passes through Guelph and Brantford as it extends southwest from the Toronto suburb of Caledon, and contains the headwaters of several rivers. It also supplies drinking water for 200,000 people in the region.

Schreiner’s first-ever bill in the Ontario legislature, introduced in 2019, was aimed at protecting the moraine. All parties supported it during debate and it passed second reading, but the legislation has been stalled for two years.

Although Clark told the Toronto Star the move to protect the area was based on Schreiner's bill, the Green Party leader said he hadn’t heard from the government about it in months.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Schreiner said.

“If you're going to undermine the conservation authorities, if you're going to fast-track the GTA West Highway, if you're going to destroy provincially significant wetlands, all those actions threaten people, communities and property in and of themselves. But they also threaten the integrity of the Greenbelt as it currently exists, let alone if it's expanded.”

NDP climate critic Sandy Shaw pointed out in a statement that Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly tried to develop the Greenbelt and backed down under pressure.

“No Ontarians believe Doug Ford when he talks about the Greenbelt,” she said.

The Ontario government is consulting the public on the idea of expanding the Greenbelt until April 19. Feedback can be sent to [email protected] or through the province's Environmental Registry.

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Don't the morraine lands comprise terrain that'd be very hard to develop?
Reminds me of smart-ass adults tricking little kids by saying, give me your little dime and I'll give you a bigger penny.

This is good as far as it goes, which isn't far. These kind of announcements without dates, commitments to steps, assigned personnel, are window dressing. Ford, and his Regressive Conservative party, have taught us to be cynical about his agenda. He will have to earn trust by actually doing something before we believe the hyena has changed its spots.