Environmentally concerned residents in an Ontario town are cheering a last-minute decision by the Doug Ford government to abandon development plans in a nearby part of the protected Greenbelt.

“I think it is a small, very important victory for us,” said Cheryl Connors, a resident of Caledon. “We fought for it. Our fight was putting a spotlight on something that Doug Ford didn't want ... a spotlight on. The backtrack means they know that they are being watched, and hopefully, it is a sign that other communities can start to fight back for all the previously protected Greenbelt land to be reversed and protected.”

This comes on top of the 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land the Ford government opened for development last year, triggering a significant public outcry and prompting a critical assessment of the plan by the province’s auditor general, who outlined deficiencies in the planning procedures.

Amid the ongoing controversy over Ford’s larger Greenbelt development plans, the provincial government earlier this month tried to expand a previous minister's zoning order that would have opened up another 41 hectares of protected Greenbelt land for development in the township of Caledon, about 45 minutes northwest of Toronto.

Minister's zoning orders, or MZOs, serve as a tool for the Ontario government to swiftly supersede existing regulations on land-use planning. They allow the housing minister to rezone a specific parcel of land at their own discretion, skipping local planning processes and fast-tracking development. These orders are also immune to appeal, and the province is not obligated to seek public input prior to their issuance. The Ford government has employed MZOs more frequently since 2018 than Ontario's previous Liberal government did throughout its 15-year tenure.

The Caledon-area development plan was opposed by municipal staff in the town, who argued the proposed lands are located in the headwaters of Etobicoke Creek, a thermally sensitive system that is a habitat to at-risk species and has areas vulnerable to flooding downstream. A report from city staff argued the plan presented “potential flood risk and environmental degradation to the surrounding and downstream communities.”

The province abruptly reversed course on its decision to take extra Greenbelt land in Caledon for development late last Thursday. Map source: Town of Caledon website

Chris Poulos, a spokesperson for Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, told Canada’s National Observer the ministry received a request to amend an existing MZO on June 14 to open up the lands for development. As required in the Planning Act, a public consultation notice related to this request was posted on July 20, seeking input on the request for an amendment, said Poulos.

“Through the consultation process, it was brought to our attention that the amendment — as submitted by the proponent — contained a section of lands located within the Greenbelt,” Poulos added. While feedback is still under review, any consideration of this amendment would not include protected lands located within the Greenbelt, said Poulos.

Amid the ongoing controversy over Ford’s Greenbelt development plans, the provincial government earlier this month tried to expand a previous MZO that would have opened up another 41 hectares of Greenbelt land for development in Caledon, Ont.

The province abruptly reversed course on its decision to take extra Greenbelt land in Caledon for development late last Thursday. The move came after the auditor general released a scathing report two weeks ago that found serious flaws and biases in the Ford government's 2022 decision to open a portion of the protected Greenbelt for development.

Connors criticized the Ford government for its efforts to bypass municipalities’ wishes and implement its development plan.

“What has been going on with MZOs and what the Ford government has been doing continues to attack the municipal government," said Connors.

Everyone should be very concerned about these special land-use orders, she adds, because they cut the public out of the planning process. “The public doesn't even get to know about the development applications. We don't get to have a say. We don't get to say, ‘Hey, this is environmentally sensitive land and there's lots of endangered species.’”

Meanwhile, other municipal politicians in Ontario complain they are being steamrolled by the province and its larger Greenbelt development plans. They argue the Ford government is determined to build at all costs, with little regard for municipal plans or the environment.

“The proposed development of the Greenbelt is an unnecessary, ineffective and misguided measure that will not contribute to meeting Hamilton’s housing needs,” said Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath. “The City of Hamilton has pledged to facilitate the construction of 47,000 housing units by 2031. I support city staff’s conclusion that residential housing development within the former Greenbelt lands is unnecessary to facilitate construction of the pledged housing unit.”

In her recent report, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found opening up the Greenbelt for development was not necessary for the Ford government to achieve its goal of building 1.5 million homes.

Horwath said she is hopeful that the findings of Lysyk’s report will lead the provincial government to abandon its plans to develop the Greenbelt.

In terms of elected officials, no one knows their municipalities and municipal needs better than city councils themselves, said Coun. Mara Nagy, who represents Ward 2 in the City of Pickering. “We are closest to the residents; we live and work in the community much more closely than our provincial government does. Municipalities are a creature of the province. We exist and function under the Municipal Act, but democracy must remain at the core of everything we do.”

While she understands the provincial government’s concern about building housing, Nagy pointed to the auditor general’s report, which stated the Greenbelt is too critical in terms of flora, fauna and soil quality to lose its protections. She also noted the construction necessary to house existing and future Ontario residents can be done without touching the Greenbelt. Last December, Nagy says, Pickering’s city council rejected development plans for the Greenbelt.

Another highlight of the auditor general’s recent report was the finding that a select group of well-connected developers had direct access to the housing minister’s chief of staff, who played a pivotal role in selecting the parcels of Greenbelt land opened up for development. Both Premier Doug Ford and Clark, the housing minister, say they were not aware of the chief of staff’s activities.

Since the report’s release, Clark’s chief of staff has resigned, and the Ontario Provincial Police has handed over its review of the Greenbelt land swap to the RCMP for investigation.

Ford expressed his confidence on Friday that the RCMP investigation will reveal no criminal wrongdoing in the Greenbelt land swap. Ford affirmed his belief that no criminal activities were involved in the process.

Political experts say the Ford government could absolutely improve its record of transparency by being more consultative and inclusive when it comes to engagement with municipal governments and communities.

“There is certainly room for improvement, especially with respect to provincial government initiatives that have significant implications for municipal government revenues, land-use plans, governance, transportation networks and housing supply,” said Shauna Brail, associate professor and director at the Institute for Management & Innovation at the University of Toronto Mississauga. “Certainly these actions have generated intense public debate, frustration and efforts to push back on what is perceived by many to be both undemocratic and outside of the provincial government’s mandate.”

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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There's a petition to recall the legislature and put back the whole greenbelt, at: