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Environmental advocates welcomed the Ford government's bill to return parcels of the Greenbelt land that were removed by the province for housing development along with enhanced legal protections.

However, they caution the Greenbelt, a vast protected region containing vital natural areas and farmland, is still not fully safeguarded from the provincial government's construction plans. They view the proposed legislation as only a modest, initial step toward resolving the government's sprawl and land speculation scandal.

“It’s good news that the boundaries of the Greenbelt will be legislated so that Ontarians will not have to worry about backroom deals in the future,” said Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature.

“The government’s decision to reverse the Greenbelt land removals attests to the power of the people. It’s the result of strong, passionate, unrelenting resistance from people of all walks of life — Indigenous leaders, farmers, housing advocates, planners, environmentalists and others — who care about clean water, food security, climate resilience and nature conservation.”

Housing and Municipal Affairs Minister Paul Calandra underscored that the proposal aims to restore previously removed lands to the Greenbelt and ensure future changes can only be made through legislation.

The Greenbelt, a swath of about two million acres, was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from development. But 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.

Following significant public pressure and critical reports from the provincial auditor general and integrity commissioner, Premier Doug Ford reversed the plan, and the RCMP has officially launched a criminal investigation into his government’s $8.3-billion Greenbelt land swap.

Bell told Canada’s National Observer that if the government is serious about protecting the Greenbelt, it should reverse policy directions that weaken environmental protections and still threaten the Greenbelt.

“The Greenbelt is still not fully protected, however. It continues to be threatened by the government’s plans to build two new mega-highways, the 413 and the Bradford Bypass. These will pave over and slice through farmland and natural areas across the Greenbelt,” said Bell.

Environmental advocates caution that the Greenbelt, a vast protected region containing crucial natural areas and farmland, is still not fully safeguarded from the provincial government's construction plans. #Greenbelt

“This bill will make any future attacks on the Greenbelt harder to hide from the public [and] that is a good thing,” said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. “The bill needs to be amended to ban mega-highways like the 413 and Bradford Bypass from being built in the Greenbelt. We need investment in public transportation infrastructure and affordable homes built in cities and towns.”

Environmental Defence also released a statement expressing relief over the legislation's introduction but raised concerns about its limitations.

“The attempt to remove lands from the Greenbelt was part of a larger corrupt and counterproductive push for sprawl that would worsen Ontario’s housing shortage,” the statement reads.

“The scandal won’t be over until Highway 413 and all the government’s other sprawl initiatives have been abandoned and reversed.”

Calandra said if passed, the legislation will enhance protections for the Greenbelt and the Oak Ridges Moraine by ensuring any future boundary changes can only be made through a public and transparent process requiring legislative approval. The Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act, 2023 would also restore protections previously provided by the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act.

“We are following through on our commitment to fully restore these lands and provide enhanced protections to the Greenbelt moving forward,” said Calandra in a statement. “At the same time, we remain focused and committed to tackling Ontario’s housing supply crisis and working with our municipal partners to achieve our shared housing targets. We know there’s more work to be done."

The ministry also proposes retaining the 9,400 acres (3,800 hectares) added to the Greenbelt in 2022, including lands in the Paris Galt Moraine and the Urban River Valley areas across the Greater Toronto Area, Calandra said.

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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Calandra's statement that "we remain focused and committed to tackling Ontario’s housing supply crisis and working with our municipal partners to achieve our shared housing targets" glosses over the fact that the housing targets were imposed and that many municipalities wanted density over sprawl and no urban boundary expansion. Partners my butt.