One of the most stunning revelations contained in Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s explosive report into Ontario’s controversial Greenbelt land swap was how a small number of real estate developers were able to use their access to a high-level government staffer to have protected land — some of which was recently purchased — opened up for housing development.
Through encounters at an industry event and emails sent by their lawyers, developers successfully lobbied for the removal of environmental protections on land they own in the Greenbelt — a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough that’s meant to be permanently off-limits to development.
Lysyk’s report revealed decisions about which sites would be removed were made over a three-week period in October by Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, and a small number of bureaucrats he directed on what’s known as the Greenbelt Project Team. When some of the selected sites did not meet certain criteria, those criteria were disregarded, she found.
“The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff,” Lysyk said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Lysyk found 21 of the 22 sites the team considered for removal were brought to the table by Amato. Only one was identified by the non-political public servants, who signed 93 confidentiality agreements as part of their work.
Of the 15 sites eventually selected and opened up for housing development, 12 were chosen after specific suggestions from developers or their representatives, according to Lysyk.
So how exactly did the list of proposed properties flow from the developers to Amato and up to the cabinet table? CBC Toronto dug deeper into the auditor general’s report to find out.
Packages at an industry dinner
Lysyk’s audit found that in the first week of October, Amato presented the project team with “hardcopy information from packages hereceived” from developers on eight sites to consider for removal from the Greenbelt.
Later that month, he provided to the Greenbelt Project Team five USB keys containing additional information on proposed sites for removal.
As for how the initial eight sites were selected, Amato told the auditor general’s team he “regularly attends industry events and meets with housing developers and their representatives, who at times pass along information about land that they recommend the ministry consider removing from the Greenbelt.”
One of those encounters took place on Sept. 14, 2022 at the Building Industry and Land Development Association’s (BILD) chair’s dinner event.
Amato and Clark’s deputy chief of staff were seated at the same table as a number of housing developers and a registered lobbyist, according to Lysyk’s report.
At the event, two developers not named in the auditor general’s report, provided Amato with “packages” containing information about two sites — the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) in Pickering, Ont., and a site in King Township, in York Region.
As CBC Toronto has reported, Silvio De Gasperis of the Tacc Group of companies and his brothers, Carlo and Michael, own more than two dozen properties in the DRAP, while the King site was purchased by Michael Rice of the Rice Group for $80 million in a deal that closed on Sept. 15. (Both Silvio De Gasperis and Rice fought the auditor general’s summons to answer questions about the land swaps.)
After the BILD event, while the project team was still conducting its work, Amato said that the “developer for the DRAP site” made requests to also remove three additional sites from the protected Greenbelt: a Hamilton, Ont., site owned by Fieldgate Homes, a site in Richmond Hill, Ont., and another in Vaughan, Ont., both of which are owned by Tacc Developments, according to Lysyk’s report.
“These five sites ultimately make up 92 per cent of all land removed from the Greenbelt in 2022,” the report said.
Lawyers sent emails to chief of staff
Lysyk’s audit also found a law firm representing three housing developers, not named in the report, asked Amato to remove their land from the Greenbelt.
On Sept. 27 and 29, the law firm sent emails to Amato requesting sites in Markham, Ont., and Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ont., be removed. Flato Developments, whose CEO is Shakir Rehmatullah (again, Lysyk’s report doesn’t list names), owns land in both areas, according to the report and CBC Toronto’s reporting. Torca Inc. is another one of the developers of the Stouffville site.
The law firm sent separate emails on Sept. 29 and Oct. 7 to Amato requesting another Markham site be removed from the Greenbelt. Wyview Group, a Markham-based developer that works on residential and industrial projects, is the primary landowner of that site, according to the report and CBC’s reporting.
Ford and Clark both told Lysyk that they were unaware that the land chosen for removal was being brought forward by Amato via the developers. Ford told Lysyk he was only briefed on the sites the day before cabinet approved the changes on Nov. 2, while Clark said he learned of the plan the week prior.
Asked by a reporter at an unrelated news conference on Friday if Amato will be the “fall guy,” shouldering all the blame for what the premier has called a “flawed process,” Ford replied: “First of all, we’re going to follow the recommendations.
“One of the recommendations was to have the integrity commissioner look into it. I know he’s in the process of doing that for the last month or probably more than a month. And we will take his recommendations. So let’s see where we go after the integrity commissioner’s report comes out.”
The auditor general’s report said the Greenbelt proposal presented to cabinet didn’t clearly explain how the land sites were identified, assessed or selected for removal.
Report raises lobbying concerns
Lysyk said her investigation also uncovered instances of lobbyists who were working for developers emailing political staff with wording of proposed legislative amendments that were then passed on to deputy ministers for inclusion in legislative packages.
“The private interests that lobbyists are paid to advance can be at odds with the public’s interest. Thus, lobbying has the potential to influence government to make decisions that do not represent the interests of the majority,” Lysyk said in her report.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch, said the Greenbelt removal process violated the public interest.
“The process was certainly corrupted by the government essentially rigging it in favour of a few developers and giving them preferential treatment,” said Conacher. “The laws need to be reviewed and strengthened to prohibit this.”
One day after Lysyk released her report, the Ford government requested that Ontario’s integrity commissioner investigate whether Amato broke any ethics or conflict of interest rules.
That was one of Lysyk’s 15 recommendations – 14 of which were accepted by the government. The single recommendation it will not accept is to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse those decisions, Ford has said.
CBC Toronto reached out to Amato for comment on Friday, but received an out-of-office response.
Even if Amato is found to have violated the rules, Conacher said the only person who could punish him is his boss, Clark, because the commissioner doesn’t have the authority to penalize staffers.
At the news conference on Friday, Ford and Clark signalled they won’t back away from plans to build on the formerly protected land, despite admitting the selection process was flawed.
“We moved too fast and there were severe flaws in the process,” Clark said.
Clark didn’t directly answer questions about how developers had such easy access to his chief of staff.
Ford, for his part, pushed back against the auditor general’s key finding – that developers were given special treatment.
“No one had preferential treatment,” he said.
“What we are doing is trying to build 50,000 homes for people that need it,” Ford said.