Protesters gathered Saturday in Pickering to express concerns about a proposal to open Greenbelt-protected land in the city for development.
A number of separate advocacy groups stood in the cold, holding signs outside Pickering-Uxbridge MPP Peter Bethlenfalvy’s office to criticize the provincial government’s plans.
“This is the most protected land in Ontario, or so it was,” said Bonnie Littley, co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition.
“It got zoned into the Greenbelt,” added Littley. “It has a ministerial zoning order. And it even has its own legislation. […] And this is about to be wiped out with one stroke of [Premier] Doug Ford’s pen.”
“We’re just so tired of having to protect the things that we thought we had already won,” said Mary Delaney, Chair of Land Over Landings. “The [land] was protected in perpetuity and it was agreed upon by all parties and all people. And now here we are, having to fight it again.”
The land in question (pictured below, in teal) touches the southeast corner of Highway 407 and the York-Durham Line, and extends southward past Concession Road 3.
It makes up a significant portion of the Duffins-Rouge Agricultural Preserve, and has traditionally been set aside for farming use.
“People don’t really realize the quality of soil in this area,” said Clayton Reesor, a farmer. “Some people might think ‘farmland is farmland – it’s everywhere,’ but in the GTA we have Class 1 soil, which is some of the best-rated. And our climate, too – we’re able to grow a lot of things that a lot of people further north aren’t able to. So it’s really crucial to be able to preserve that.”
Reesor’s family is based in Scarborough, and rents additional land in Pickering to plant more grain crops.
He estimated about half of the business’s harvest currently comes from land that is now slated for development.
“What’s nice about a larger land base is […] it allows you to do crop rotations – to grow different crops that are more beneficial for the soil,” he added. “When you limit your land base, that restricts the amount of rotations that you can do.”
The agricultural preserve also overlaps with the Duffins Creek watershed to the east, which has recently had its own controversies. In 2021, environmental groups rallied against plans to construct an Amazon warehouse on a wetland near Highway 401, which was connected to the creek by groundwater.
Construction was ultimately cancelled.
More homes, built faster
Ahead of the 2018 election, then-Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford backtracked from statements that he would open up the Greenbelt, saying he would instead “maintain [it] in its entirety.”
However, amid a growing housing bubble, Ford’s government has expressed a desire to see 1.5-million new homes built over the next decade.
Officials at Queen’s Park have argued that increasing housing supply will lead to lower prices and offer space for hundreds of thousands of new Canadians.
Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, was introduced on October 25. It includes a number of pledges, including “removing red tape” and reducing developer fees.
This raised eyebrows at Conservation Ontario, who argued the bill could affect the powers held by conservation authorities when they issue permits.
“This bill is attacking our floodplains, our watersheds,” said Peter Cohen, chair of Climate Justice Durham, at Saturday’s protest. “It’s affecting the ability of a conservation authority to tell us where it’s safe to build and to tell us how to prevent floods.”
“In Canada, we have a good thing here,” continued Cohen. “We don’t have to worry about hundreds or even thousands of deaths every time there’s a bad flood.”
A related piece of legislation, Bill 39, proposes to explore the possibility of expanding “strong mayor” powers into new cities and towns.
“We have to have a conversation about housing,” said Oshawa MPP Jennifer French on Saturday. “But if anybody thinks that that’s what Bill 23 and Bill 39 [are] about, this is about profits for PC donors. This is also about making things so easy to just run over important wetlands.”
Further, on November 4, the province began accepting comments on a proposal to remove 15 plots of land (including the one in Pickering) from the Greenbelt (totalling about 7,400 acres) and add 9,400 acres of already-rural land in their stead.
“It’s a smack in the face to democracy,” said Littley, who has spent two decades advocating for the agricultural preserve. “It’s a smack in the face to the community.”
“You do not need to sprawl onto farmland to provide affordable housing,” said Delaney. “We need infilling. We need gentle density. We need low-rises. We need housing where transit exists, housing where stores exist, housing where sewers and water – all the things that are needed for liveable communities – [and] biking trails exist. And not expanding out into the rural areas.”
“Not only is it farmland that we’re losing, and watersheds and greenspace, but they have to add infrastructure,” continued Delaney. “They have to add transit. They have to add water lines. They have to add sewer lines. All those things are going to make taxes go up.”
The pricing of land
On Thursday, MPP French tweeted footage of an exchange between herself and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark in the legislature at Queen’s Park.
She had been commenting on reports by the Toronto Star and The Narwhal that portions of the Pickering land are controlled by developer Silvio DeGasperis, having been bought at low prices.
Critics have argued the land will skyrocket in price once it opens up for development.
“The only thing standing in the way of Mr. DeGasperis’s ability to make untold millions of dollars is the Duffins-Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, and the premier’s government just made that go away,” said French in the video. “Mr. DeGasperis is about to get much, much richer from land that, until [November 16], was protected in perpetuity.”
“It’s a property that’s been discussed for many, many years,” said Clark in response. “The outgoing mayor of Pickering actually wrote to the government and suggested that this property should be part of a future development. […] The specific Cherrywood property would provide up to 25,000 of the 50,000 homes that the government is proposing with this posting on the Greenbelt.”
Part 1: PC donor developers stand to make an unimaginable fortune, and I want to know if the Premier understands how shady these #Greenbelt deals look? #HandsOffTheGreenbelt #onpoli @TorontoStar @thenarwhalca pic.twitter.com/blsVWa38ix
— Jennifer French (@jennkfrench) November 17, 2022
“This land was once owned by the province,” noted Brian Buckles from the Green Durham Association, on Saturday.
“We took the province to the [Ontario Municipal Board] to make sure that when they sold those lands they put easements on them so the land couldn’t be flipped to a developer where they make windfall profits,” added Buckles.
“If you sell these lands at farmland prices […] and don’t put easements on them, you’ll be giving a giant windfall to developers,” he argued. “You’ll look like financial idiots.”
Concerns have also been raised about Bill 23’s impact on developer fees.
“They’ve taken away municipal governments’ right to raise development charges in some circumstances,” said former Ajax Mayor Steve Parish. “These are for infrastructure, roads, sewers, etc. If the developers don’t pay for it through development charges, you and I are paying for it through our property taxes. So this hurts everybody. And it’s wrong-headed.”
The proposed reduction in fees has drawn statements from Durham Region and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).
“We believe that growth should pay for growth,” said Regional Chair Henry on November 10.
“It’s removing all sorts of rights from conservation authorities, from municipal governments, from individual citizens,” said Delaney on Saturday.
“It’s all designed to let the developers run the province,” she added.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) expressed concerns on November 16.
In a tweet, they argued the removal of protections could hamper efforts to protect the watersheds of Petticoat Creek and Duffins Creek.
The Province’s proposed removal of nearly 4,700 acres of protected agricultural lands in Pickering, could result in unplanned urbanization negatively impacting efforts to protect Petticoat & Duffins Creek & nearby Rouge National Urban Park. Learn more: https://t.co/5ajYSJxClp
— Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (@TRCA_HQ) November 16, 2022
On November 15, Oshawa council voted for the city to “not support” the province’s proposed changes to the Greenbelt.
“This was promised to be preserved,” said Councillor Rosemary McConkey, who introduced the motion. “When you give a promise I believe it should be respected.”
“What is the point of having a protected Greenbelt area if it is not indeed protected?” said Councillor Derek Giberson. “It is not something that should be up for grabs based on political winds that may change from time to time.”
On Tuesday, Mike Schreiner, leader of the provincial Green party, tabled a pair of bills aimed at tackling housing affordability with a smaller footprint.
The bills are meant to increase the number of fourplexes and four-storey walk-up apartments in residential neighbourhoods, and the amount of mid-rise housing along transit corridors.
Meantime, conversations are being had about a separate watershed – that of Carruthers Creek in Pickering and Ajax.
In May, regional council voted in favour of expanding Durham’s urban boundary into non-Greenbelt lands, to address an expected population surge over the coming decades. On November 10, regional staff released a report that identifies potential locations.
One of those expansions would be in northeast Pickering, which overlaps with the creek’s headwaters.
Groups have previously rallied against the idea of developing that area, arguing it could have impacts on communities downstream.
The finance minister’s response
“As Ontario faces a housing supply crisis, it’s important that we take bold action to get more homes built faster,” reads a statement from Minister Bethlenfalvy on Monday. “That’s why we’re proposing changes to the Greenbelt that would create at least 50,000 new homes across the province, while also expanding the overall size of the Greenbelt by 2,000 acres.”
“The changes being proposed in Pickering are in response to requests from both incoming and outgoing mayors and would mean more housing options for the people of Durham,” he continued. “As our community continues to grow, our government is doing everything it can to ensure an adequate supply of housing and protect the dream of home ownership.”
Diagrams have been provided by the Environmental Registry of Ontario.