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Environmental advocates are celebrating Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to reverse his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for housing development as a victory. But they emphasize the influence of private interests on governance and planning decisions remains a pressing issue.
“We won! The people of Durham Region won,” said Abdullah Mir, a member of Stop Sprawl Durham, an environmental advocacy group. “While we may have won this round, the ongoing story is the influence of private interests over good governance and sound planning decisions. The battles still to be fought are against the backroom deals that accelerate unnecessary sprawl and the use of undemocratic ministerial zoning orders.”
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.
This movement (Stop Sprawl Durham) does not stop with Premier Ford’s reversal of the Greenbelt cuts, Mir added.
“The Greenbelt is well known and beloved by Ontarians, but other vulnerable areas of prime farmland, wetlands and woodlots need our attention, too. Stop Sprawl Durham will continue to advocate for complete communities with a range of housing types within our existing urban boundaries.”
On Thursday, Ford admitted opening the Greenbelt was a mistake. “I made a promise to you that I wouldn't touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I'm very, very sorry. I pride myself on keeping our promises,” Ford said at a press conference in Niagara Falls.
Ford conceded there were flaws in the selection process for which land parcels would be removed from the protected area, stating it created "too much room for some people to benefit over others.”
“As a first step to earn back your trust, I'll be reversing the changes we made and won't make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future.”
Ford's announcement followed two scathing reports released last month by the province's auditor general and its integrity commissioner. The reports revealed the Ford government’s 2022 decision to open part of the protected Greenbelt for development was the result of a deeply flawed and biased process, and that Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark violated ethics rules.
Advocates are celebrating Ford’s decision to reverse his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for development as a victory. But they emphasize the influence of private interests on governance and planning decisions remains a pressing issue.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report stated owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase by more than $8.3 billion.
Ford disregarded how much Ontarians care about our natural areas, which are key to mitigating the climate, biodiversity and affordability crises, said Mir. “We hope he has learned that voters really don’t like it when politicians don’t keep their promises. Especially when it comes to matters of such vital importance to our health and that of future generations.”
In a statement sent to Canada’s National Observer, the National Farmers Union-Ontario (NFU-O) also praised the government's decision and attributed it to nearly a year of mobilization by a diverse coalition of farmers, Indigenous groups, environmental organizations and affordable housing advocates.
Max Hansgen, NFU-O president, sees this as an affirmation of the importance of democratic processes. “This is a victory for all of us, he said. “The government's decision to return the Greenbelt lands is vindication for everyone who united against … the undermining of democratic processes and who share a vision that we can build affordable housing and protect our finite farmland and sensitive natural heritage.”
According to the auditor general’s report, the Greenbelt plays an important role in sustaining ecological and human health and has some of the most productive farmland in Canada.
Since the report's release, Housing Minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff, Public and Business Service Delivery Minister Kaleed Rasheed, and Ford's director of housing policy, Jae Truesdell, have resigned. 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 investigation will reveal no criminal wrongdoing.
Environmental Defence welcomed the Greenbelt reversal but views it as just one step in a broader battle. It calls for strengthened Greenbelt protections to prevent future attempts to undermine it and urge a shift away from current policies that worsen housing shortages and damage the environment.
“The Ontario government’s $8.3-billion gift to developers represented just the most visible part of a dishonest and counterproductive push for sprawl that will only worsen Ontario’s housing shortage,” said Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager for Environmental Defence, in a statement sent to Canada's National Observer.
“We hope this change marks the beginning of a broader shift away from the government’s current misguided policies, including forced boundary expansions in Hamilton and Halton, Waterloo and elsewhere; its lowering of growth plan density requirements; its gutting of conservation authorities; and its dismantling of regional land use planning.
These damaging decisions, along with attempts to repeal laws that promote efficient land use and construction, must also be reversed, Pothen added.
Ian Borsuk, executive director of Environment Hamilton, also emphasized the need to maintain pressure on the government to reverse other questionable decisions, such as urban boundary expansion. “There are still a variety of planning decisions that this province has made that, in our opinion, were subject to the same flawed justifications the Greenbelt land grabs were and it's vital that we keep up the pressure to reverse all of them,” said Borsuk.
“That means not forcing an urban boundary expansion on Hamilton and other cities, reversing Bill 23, bringing back rent control, and so much more that made it harder to build the housing we need without sprawl.”
The 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 rationalized 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.