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Feds take next step on study that could stop Greenbelt development

Ottawa's study could lay the groundwork for blocking Greenbelt development in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks at a press conference, in Ottawa, on Monday, June 5, 2023.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

A federal study that could derail the Ontario government's plans to build housing on former Greenbelt land took another quiet step on Tuesday. 

The Impact Assessment Agency finalized the terms for its study on how development will affect the area in and around Rouge National Urban Park and other areas of federal jurisdiction, like protecting species at risk. 

The study will take into account more land than was initially outlined when the process started earlier this year. 

Originally, the study was going to look at the effects on the national park itself, the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, and adjacent federal lands. The Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve sits just east of Rouge Park and is home to around 60 per cent of the land the PCs took out of the Greenbelt last November. 

The new terms specifically target those, plus additional federal lands in Pickering and further land that could be opened for development by ministerial zoning orders issued by the Ontario government. 

If the agency finds development would adversely affect any of those areas, Ottawa could step in and block development but only when a potential project gets past the planning stages.

"Most of the tools I have — whether they're impact assessment or species at risk — can be deployed once specific projects are being announced. Until those projects are announced, it's a bit more difficult for us to get involved," federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told The Trillium in a May interview.   

The new terms are also more explicit about studying the "cumulative" effects of development, whereas the previous terms talked more about the "direct" effects. 

"Cumulative effects means ... projecting out the impacts of things like roads, subdivisions, paving, and what that's going to do to the social, economic and ecological values in the park," said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. 

The province will address all of the federal government's concerns, said Caitlin Clark, Premier Doug Ford's press secretary. 

"As previously noted by the federal government the readily developable lands in question are not connected to the Rouge National Urban Park. As they should also be aware, any development on these lands must avoid impacts to species at risk and comply with the Endangered Species Act," she said in a statement to The Trillium

With the terms now set in stone, the next step is naming three commissioners who'll lead the study. Once they're in place, they'll have 18 months to finish the study. 

That timeline butts up against the province's self-imposed deadline of getting the ball rolling on the developments. 

Developers must make “significant progress on approvals … by the end of 2023” and must make “significant progress” on construction by 2025, according to consultation documents posted when the land swap was announced last November. 

Despite those conditions being set out when the policy dropped, last week's scathing auditor general report said the process is lacking.

It's being led by the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator, which is in charge of negotiating timelines and getting developers to pay for the necessary infrastructure improvements to service the areas. 

"We found that as of June 2023, the housing ministry and the government have not further defined these expectations so that they can be measured, nor have they established performance indicators to do so," the report found. 

The PLDF assured the auditor that progress metrics will be built into the agreements, though no agreements have been reached yet. 

The province expects 50,000 homes to be built as a result of its Greenbelt land swap, just over three per cent of 1.5 million homes that the government wants built in Ontario by 2031.

Last year, the Ford government removed 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt and added 9,400 acres elsewhere. 

The development site in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve is known as Cherrywood, owned by TACC Development. According to the auditor general, it makes up 58 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt and that removal is estimated to have increased its land value by $6.63 billion.

In May, Guilbeault also hinted to The Trillium he might not stop with the Rouge Park study. 

"The Niagara Escarpment is another area we're looking at right now, trying to see, do we have similar levers as the ones we have for (Rouge Park)?" Guilbeault said.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included a mathematical error concerning the portion of the housing target 50,000 homes on former Greenbelt land represents. It is three-and-a-third per cent, not a third of a per cent. The Trillium regrets the error. 

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Aidan Chamandy

About the Author: Aidan Chamandy

Aidan Chamandy specializes in energy and housing. He can usually be found looking for government documents on obscure websites and filing freedom-of-information requests. He hosts and produces podcasts. Reach him anytime at [email protected].
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