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In a scathing report released Wednesday, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found the Doug Ford government’s 2022 decision to open part of the protected Greenbelt for development was the result of a deeply flawed and biased process.

The provincial government's actions were driven by political influence and privileged access, according to the report, and favoured specific developers while sidelining environmental, agricultural and financial concerns. The owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase more than $8.3 billion, Lysyk found.

“The exercise to change the Greenbelt boundaries in Fall 2022 cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” the auditor general said.

The land selection process, which took place over three weeks, was severely limited and excluded meaningful contributions from experts in land-use planning within provincial ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, First Nations leaders and the public, said Lysyk. At the same time, she added, preferential treatment was given to specific developers who had direct connections to Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who was not named in the report.

Premier Doug Ford and Clark both told Lysyk that they were unaware that the land chosen for removal was controlled by Amato.

Ford and Clark will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. ET to respond to the report.

Amato played a pivotal role in selecting the lands removed from the Greenbelt, and those decisions ultimately benefitted developers, the auditor general’s investigation found.

Amato instructed ministry staff to restrict site-selection assessment to land sites he had mostly identified, the report found, limiting their ability to gauge the sites’ agricultural and environmental importance. He then directed this "Greenbelt Project Team" to not disclose any information and had them sign non-disclosure agreements.

About 92 per cent of the approximately 7,400 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt make up five land sites involving three developers, the report found, adding two of those developers had direct access to Amato.

The Doug Ford government’s 2022 decision to open part of the protected Greenbelt for development was the result of a deeply flawed and biased process, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk says. #onpoli

At the Building Industry and Land Development Association’s Chair’s Dinner last September, “two prominent housing developers approached him and gave him packages containing information to remove two land sites from the Greenbelt,” Lysyk wrote.

Amato told the auditor general that he did not open the packages immediately, but kept them in a stack in his office and added to them as more packages rolled in.

One of the developers who benefitted was the De Gasparis family, which owns TACC Developments. Sylvio De Gasparis has close ties to Ford. One of the sites recommended for removal was part of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve.

The report also notes ample land existed to meet the Ford government’s target of building 1.5 million homes without resorting to Greenbelt development. In October 2022, before the Greenbelt changes, the Housing Ministry had already allocated housing targets to regions to cover that goal, the auditor general found.

The report revealed the Greenbelt removals were approved without full consideration of environmental and agricultural risks. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs indicated about 83 per cent of the area removed is classified as prime agricultural land, having the highest quality and capability for agriculture, the report added.

Ontario’s Greenbelt was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from development. The swath of about two million acres of protected land includes farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. In December 2022, the Ford government removed land from the Greenbelt to open it up for housing development as part of the province’s commitment to build 1.5 million new homes across the province over the next decade. A total of 7,400 acres were removed, which the provincial government rationalizes with its commitment to add another 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt elsewhere.

The situation demonstrates the need for non-political public servants to have a formal process empowering them to raise objections when, in their opinion, proper information-gathering and decision-making protocols are disregarded, the report found.

“While the people of Ontario deserve prompt action to solve societal problems like those generated by a need for housing, this does not mean that government and non-elected political staff should sideline or abandon protocols and processes that are important to guide objective and transparent decision-making based on sufficient and accurate information,” Lysyk wrote.

Premier Doug Ford has previously insisted his government has "nothing to hide" regarding the Greenbelt. He has reaffirmed his office's commitment to co-operation with both the auditor general's investigation and a separate inquiry led by Ontario's integrity commissioner.

The province, in its response included in the report and written by Ford's Chief of Staff Patrick Sackville, said it accepts 14 of the 15 recommendations put forward by the auditor general.

"We agree that there is always an opportunity to improve the way that the political public service works together to establish, implement, and deliver for the people of Ontario through enhanced government policies and programs," he wrote.

—With files from the Canadian Press

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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if there isnt a massive public response to this blatant corruption and grifting , then we are well on the road to someone running the province as a fiefdom much worse than even these porkbarelling cons

given that the mainstream press is billionaire owned and controlled, given the citizens shrugged and re-elected Dug after his incompetence and complicity over the convoy, the social murder of thousands in longterm care, and so on and so on… I have no confidence that we will reverse this in your face corrupt destruction of food producing, environmentally critical public land.

the one force that is actually capable of stopping Dug is the Feds. do they see any political upside in doing the right thing? we will soon see.

Doug Ford and his development buddies are getting away with what should be a criminal offense. If voters only cared in Ontario, paid attention to what is going AND GOT OUT TO VOTE- we might get rid of a Premier that should not be in this position. Favoring developers that keep him elected by donating money and support should be a crime and cronyism. Ford needs to go. Come on Ontario voters get off your buts and care enough to pay attention and to vote to get rid of this Government and this Premier.

What has been described in the auditor's *is* against the law. That's why her findings ahve been referred to the OPP.

Doug the Thug has only been here to fill the pork barrels of his corrupt developer donors. He has little interest in Ontarians, which is evident in cuts backs to education, healthcare, long term care, climate change measures and removing environmental protection to the delight of these developers.

It is interesting how Doug the Thug personal wealth has taken a major jump since in office, I wonder how that is possible without corruption and under the table deals.

Ontario needs to wake up, kick his butt to curb before he does too much more damage. Doug the Thug has only managed to fill the pork barrels of his corrupt donors, but also making Ontaria a much more expensive province to live in.