The Ontario government has announced it will start the process of returning 104 acres of land to the protected Greenbelt after the attempted sale of those lands, slated for housing development, came to light.

In recent weeks, the property owner of 765 and 775 Kingston Rd. E. in Ajax, roughly 40 kilometres northeast of Toronto, listed the land for sale. A portion of the property was slated to be turned into a business park rather than homes, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in a statement.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has consistently defended his decision last year to remove land from the Greenbelt on the grounds it is necessary for housing development to address provincewide shortages. However, his government has faced growing pressure in recent weeks following a scathing auditor general’s report on the Greenbelt plans.

The statement from the ministry did not name the company that owns the Ajax property. However, the auditor general's report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or landowner for the land recently listed for sale. According to CBC, a large parcel of the land in question was bought in June 2018.

A representative for the property owner told CBC the international owner was not trying to sell the property outright but merely pursuing a development partner.

The provincial government’s statement notes the sale listing took the province by surprise.

“At no time was the intention to sell or change the ownership structure disclosed to the government’s Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator despite active and ongoing discussions,” read the statement. “This lack of transparency raises serious concerns about the owner’s ability to meet the government’s expectation that homes be built in a timely manner, including the need to show meaningful progress before the end of year.”

The Ford government promised to consult with local Indigenous communities in returning the Ajax site to the Greenbelt. A 45-day public and municipal consultation, similar to the process employed for land removal from the Greenbelt, will also be launched through the Environmental Registry of Ontario, the ministry said.

Earlier this week, First Nations leaders in Ontario demanded the return of all lands removed from the Greenbelt for development, calling for a criminal investigation of the Ford government.

In recent weeks, the property owner of 765 and 775 Kingston Rd. E. in Ajax, roughly 40 km northeast of Toronto, listed the land for sale. A portion of the property was slated to be turned into a business park rather than homes. #Greenbelt

The Chiefs of Ontario (COO), which advocates for 133 First Nations in the province, say they will suspend any working relationship with Ontario's Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark until further notice.

The COO says First Nations have been given very little, if any, opportunity to be adequately consulted on changes to the Greenbelt, despite these changes directly affecting First Nations’ inherent treaty and constitutionally protected rights.

According to the ministry’s statement, the government will inform other proponents that they must notify the Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator of any potential transactions or actions regarding the remaining lands to ensure construction proceeds without unnecessary delays. “Any actions that stand in the way of building homes quickly on these lands will not be tolerated,” the statement added.

The Ford government also warned other owners of Greenbelt land open for housing development to abide by the province’s requirements.

“To the other property owners, you’re on notice: if you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year-end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt,” the statement reads.

In her report, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found the Ford government’s 2022 decision to open up parts of the protected area for development was the result of a deeply flawed and biased process.

The Greenbelt parcels were handpicked and favoured developers with political access to the housing minister’s chief of staff, the report found. “The exercise to change the Greenbelt boundaries in fall 2022 cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” the auditor general said.

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 has expressed his confidence that the RCMP investigation will reveal no criminal wrongdoing.

In her report, Lysyk found the owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase more than $8.3 billion.

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 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.

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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