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Ontario government ‘exploring’ putting protections back on 2 Greenbelt properties

The Ontario government is “exploring” reinstating environmental protections on two properties in Ajax, Ont., that were removed from the Greenbelt last year and slated for development, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday.

In a statement, Ford said the properties — located at 765 and 775 Kingston Road East — had been listed for sale by the developers who own the land.

“At no point was the intention to sell disclosed to the government’s facilitator during active and ongoing discussions,” Ford said in his statement.

“This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people.”

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development. Last year, the province took 2,995 hectares of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 3,000 acres elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the province’s auditor general released a scathing report that showed property developers with close ties to the government influenced the decision to open up the Greenbelt to their benefit. The fallout has triggered the resignation of the housing minister’s chief of staff and the RCMP is considering launching an investigation into the matter.

Opposition to swap

Ontario First Nations leaders also reiterated their opposition to the Greenbelt land swap this week. You can read more about that here.

The two Ajax properties together formed one of the 15 sites for which environmental protections were removed.

Ford’s statement did not name the company nor did it outright say the land would be returned to the Greenbelt.

However, the auditor general’s report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or the landowner for the land recently listed for sale. A large parcel of the land in question was bought in June 2018.

The auditor general report also lists a numbered company as the owner of those sites. Property records show the area was bought in June 2018 for $15.8 million. The property includes a three-bedroom home built in 1880.

A family owned the land for more than a century before putting it up for sale, a listing at the time shows.

An aerial view of protected farmland in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering, Ont., that the provincial government has removed from the Greenbelt to allow housing development.
An aerial view of protected farmland in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering, Ont., that the provincial government has removed from the Greenbelt to allow housing development. Ford announced Tuesday the government is ‘exploring’ putting environmental protections back on two parts of the Greenbelt in Ajax, Ont., which had been slated for development. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

The family said in that listing that it was 104 acres in the Greenbelt and a “high profile location.” The family wrote that they initiated the process of exempting the lands from the Greenbelt designation with the province back in 2013.

“Supports a mix use development. Potential of huge financial reward!” the listing reads.

The property was then put up for sale again in February 2022 for $1 but wasn’t sold.

The auditor general found that 98 per cent of that land is classified as the highest quality soil that produces cash crop production. It is also a priority area that maintains Greenbelt connectivity in the Ajax and Whitby, Ont., corridor.

Buena Vista could not be immediately be reached for comment.

Opposition parties slam government

Ford did say his government is “exploring every option including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt.”

He also added a warning to other property owners.

“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,” Ford said.

In a statement, Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the Conservatives are “changing their tune simply because they got caught.

“Clearly, this is a government that has one set of rules for those with close connections to their party and a different set for everyone else. None of this is about housing,” she said. “This government needs to recall the Legislature so we can restore all of these lands to Greenbelt protection now, and Ford needs to fire Minister Clark from Cabinet.”

In his own statement, interim Liberal Leader and MPP John Fraser similarly called for Clark’s resignation, and called Ford’s announcement a “desperate attempt to distract the people of Ontario by trying to hide the tip of the iceberg.

“If the Premier were serious, he would accept the Auditor General’s recommendation to return all lands back to the Greenbelt,” he said.

Green Party Leader and MPP Mike Schreiner called for the same. 

“The Premier should absolutely do right by Ontarians and return these and all other lands to the Greenbelt immediately,” Schreiner said in a statement.

Ajax property has heritage status

There is another issue that will have to be considered should developers want to move ahead with housing in that area.

The Town of Ajax designated heritage status on a collection of buildings on the site in 2021. No one objected to the status, the town’s documents note.

The land is known as the Nicholas Austin Property, the town’s heritage bylaw on the property says. The heritage designation is primarily on the property’s old buildings.

“The property contains one of the oldest remaining dwellings in the town, a collection of interesting agricultural buildings and a rare example of an early airplane hangar,” the bylaw reads.

Many of the buildings are “architecturally significant” and built in the mid-1800s.

“This collection of agricultural outbuildings is surely amongst the most interesting and eclectic in the town,” the bylaw reads.

The town controls the fate of the heritage buildings, a spokessaid.

 “The heritage designation means that anyone that wants to alter any of the heritage attributes of the property must first get approval from the town,” Devon Jarvis said in an email.

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