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'People smell something': Greenbelt investigation applauded in York

Area environmentalists welcome probe into province's decision to open parts of Greenbelt for development, question purchase of land just west of Newmarket
File photo

Newmarket area environmentalists are welcoming an integrity commissioner investigation following Greenbelt land purchases, including one just west of town.

The provincial integrity commissioner has agreed to launch an inquiry into the decision to allow Greenbelt development and whether the government violated conflict of interest and insider information rules, based on a complaint from incoming NDP leader Marit Stiles questioning if the government tipped off developers ahead of the announcement.

Climate Action Newmarket-Aurora member Elizabeth Cook said it is important this investigation is occurring.

“We need decisions like this to be taken seriously, and if they haven’t been made with a lot of the right types of checks and balances, then it’s important to recognize," she said. 

The province announced its proposal to redesignate Greenbelt lands for development in November. Just a couple of months before then, a company linked to Rice Group purchased a swath of Greenbelt land in King just west of Newmarket for $80 million. At that point, there was no public indication that the province planned to open up the Greenbelt for development, with Premier Doug Ford saying in 2018 that he would not touch the Greenbelt.

NewmarketToday did not receive a reply from Rice Group regarding a request for comment. 

Ford has denied that the government tipped off any developers before the Greenbelt announcement.

But there is a “collective sigh of relief” that this is getting investigated, according to Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition executive director Claire Malcomson.

“People smell something,” she said. “I hope the investigation can uncover what has really happened and determine if anything inappropriate happened.”

Municipalities like Georgina are oppositing Greenbelt development and some York region council members, including Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, have expressed concerns. However, the Township of King passed a resolution asking the province to fast track a project for a new Southlake Regional Health Centre location on a part of its Greenbelt now open for development.

Climate Action Newmarket-Aurora member Fran Bazos said that the Greenbelt should be protected in perpetuity.

“I would like to see an absolute demand from our municipal leaders to protect the Greenbelt at all costs,” she said, adding that she found the Greenbelt land transactions “shocking.

“It’s so blatant,” she said. 

The province has defended the move to open the Greenbelt as necessary to build housing for the population growth to come, with the province expected to grow by two million by 2031. The province has also proposed adding land to the Greenbelt, including 13 urban river valleys to make up for the loss of land.

"These changes are an important part of our government’s balanced strategy to build a stronger Ontario by protecting environmentally important lands while tackling Ontario’s housing supply crisis," the province said in announcing the Greenbelt changes. "We are fulfilling our commitment to get more homes built faster so more Ontarians can find a home that meets their needs and budget.

Rice Group has a number of developments underway throughout Newmarket and the surrounding area. It is building a massive Loblaws distribution facility in East Gwillimbury, plus a retail complex featuring Costco near Highway 404 and Davis Drive in Newmarket.

Other holdings and developments include:

  • A retail plaza near Upper Canada Mall at 17380 Yonge St.  
  • A retail plaza with a supermarket in Aurora at 16005-16055 Bayview Ave.
  • A retail plaza with an LA Fitness in Aurora at 15610-15650 Bayview Ave. 
  • A Markham retail plaza featuring an LA Fitness at 8555 Woodbine Ave. and 3000 Hwy 7. 
  • An upcoming 50-acre mixed-use development in East Gwillimbury at 18328 Yonge St. E. 
  • Employment lands in East Gwillimbury at 1656 Green Lane E.
  • Employment lands in East Gwillimbury at 18363 Leslie St. 

Malcolmson said King's Greenbelt lands make little sense for a hospital, with the area lacking servicing and servicing allocation being a challenge for the region. 

“People are seeing through the garbage here,” she said. “We need to consider more than just 'is there a landowner who wants to make a deal?' And the public deserves that.” 

Bazos said she hopes the commissioner investigation will find that this Greenbelt decision was unethical and that it might lead to a reversal of the decision to permit development. 

“My dream is people will matter more than corporate profits," she said. 

“We believe that the Greenbelt needs protection,” Cook said. “Hopefully, the results of these investigations are able to give some credence to the fact these decisions have been made without due process.”