Inside the Greenbelt deal from two developers’ perspectives

TORONTO — Although no one explicitly told developers that Ontario planned to open the protected greenbelt to housing last year, the government telegraphed that message to builders through action — and silence, a noted by the provincial integrity commissioner.

At the heart of this indirect communication was a conference in which some developers had access to the housing minister’s chief of staff – two investigations found that these builders ended up with 92 percent of sites removed from the Belt and Road. greenery.

What happened at that conference, and some of what followed, is laid out in the report released last week by Commissioner J. David Wake, offering a glimpse into the world of Ontario real estate developers and how they interact with government.

“Communication…can take many forms. This is about more than just talk,” Wake wrote in the report that describes Housing Minister Ryan Amato’s chief of staff receiving packages from developers and then seeking further information.

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“I find these actions amounted to Mr. Amato uttering the words he had been careful not to utter.”

Wake found that then-Housing Minister Steve Clark violated ethics rules during the provincial process to remove 15 sites from the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and add land to the area protected elsewhere. Clark resigned days after the report was released, while Amato resigned in mid-August but denied any wrongdoing.

Wake’s investigation included interviews with two prominent developers, Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice – neither responded to a request for comment from the Canadian Press. Amato’s attorney also did not respond to a request for comment.

De Gasperis, CEO of the TACC Group of Companies, had wanted to develop homes on one of his properties — known as Cherrywood — for decades, but it was in the Greenbelt, Wake wrote.

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De Gasperis owned the land at the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve in Pickering, Ontario, even before the greenbelt was created in 2005 and felt it had been unfairly included in the protected area. He took the province to court over the designation, but ultimately lost.

The developer raised the property with Premier Doug Ford after the Progressive Conservatives won the June 2018 election, “telling him that Cherrywood is the perfect land for housing.”

Ford told De Gasperis he couldn’t do it.

The prime minister left the Greenbelt untouched during his first term: he initially told real estate developers in February 2018 that he planned to open up the area, but backtracked during the election campaign.

De Gasperis nevertheless noted the Progressive Conservatives’ commitment to build Highway 413 north of Toronto, a road crossing Greenbelt lands.

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“This suggested to him that there might be an opportunity to review the government’s green belt policy,” Wake wrote.

When Ford won the 2022 election, De Gasperis set his sights on Amato, Clark’s chief of staff.

The opportunity to speak with Amato presented itself on September 14, 2022, during a dinner at the Building Industry and Land Use Planning Conference.

De Gasperis sat at the same table as Amato and came armed with a brief that his daughter, director of planning for TACC Developments, had prepared to make Cherrywood’s case.

“I have a package I want you to look at – there was an injustice in Cherrywood and I want you to take a look at it,” De Gasparis told Amato.

He handed over the envelope and told Amato to ask his daughter questions. Amato said he would take a look.

Cherrywood, devoid of homes, was “the biggest disappointment of his career,” De Gasperis told Wake.

De Gasperis’ daughter told the integrity commissioner she didn’t see an opportunity to raise requests to remove the greenbelt with the province before the 2022 election, when she noticed Ford had not renewed its commitment not to touch the area.

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“From this silence, she saw an opening to reconsider this position,” Wake wrote.

In early October, Amato called Alana De Gasperis to get more information. She asked if Cherrywood would be removed from the Greenbelt.

“The government is looking at everything right now and hasn’t made any decisions,” Amato told him.

She then asked him if he could view other properties.

“He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no,” she told the integrity commissioner.

She took this opportunity to tell Amato about three other locations: one in Richmond Hill, Ontario, another in Vaughan, Ontario, and one in Hamilton, which TACC co-owned with a friend of her father.

She heard little from Amato until November 3, 2022, when he called her with good news: These four plots of land were coming out of the Greenbelt.

Michael Rice, another prominent land developer, was also present at the developers’ dinner where Silvio De Gasperis presented his Cherrywood package to Amato.

Rice told the integrity commissioner he thought it was likely the Greenbelt would be opened, particularly after the government pa*sed legislation giving the housing minister the power to decide which areas to grow and reducing the role of nature protection authorities.

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“If, by 2022, a developer wasn’t thinking about opening the Greenbelt, “he was sleeping,” Rice, who heads the Rice Group of Companies, told Wake.

In December 2021, Rice asked his staff to identify Greenbelt land he could purchase, and in May 2022 he reached an agreement to purchase a 687-acre property in King Township, TX. Ontario, with partners for $80 million.

This agreement was reached on September 15, 2022, the day after the dinner at which Rice spoke briefly with Amato.

“If you look at the Greenbelt lands, I have something great, that’s the site you need to look at,” Rice told Amato, according to Wake.

A few days later, Amato called Rice to get more information. Amato then came to Rice’s office to pick up a briefing file in late September.

Amato’s visit revealed to Rice “that they were looking at the Greenbelt,” the developer told Wake.

A little over a month later, these lands would no longer be part of the Greenbelt.

Days after Wake’s report, Ford announced a review of all Greenbelt lands. The new Housing Minister said this process could result in sites being added or removed from the area.

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