Newmarket political blogger Gordon Prentice saw something amiss in how the Township of King responded to the provincial announcement that some of its Greenbelt would be opened for development.
King passed a resolution Nov. 7 asking the province to fast-track some of those lands to become a new hospital site for the Southlake Regional Health Centre. King Mayor Steve Pellegrini said that the owner would provide some of that Greenbelt land for this purpose for a nominal fee.
Prentice said given that the province announced the Greenbelt lands opening for development Nov. 4, the timing did not make sense. He made a freedom of information request to the township. The township disclosed the mayor had met with Southlake and the developers about the idea Nov. 1.
“People ought to join up the dots,” Prentice said. “There are all these questions out there that need to be answered. Really, the genie was out of the bottle."
Now that information is in the spotlight in a provincial integrity commissioner investigation into whether the province tipped off developers about the Greenbelt lands opening up beforehand. The provincial NDP held a news conference today about the Nov. 1 meeting and other evidence it has submitted to the commissioner about the subject.
“Maybe they had a crystal ball,” incoming NDP leader Marit Stiles said in a news conference. “But it seems to me like someone knew something.”
The Greenbelt lands in King, just west of Newmarket, have been under scrutiny for several months. Previously barred from development like the rest of the Greenbelt, the province included the lands in a Nov. 4 announcement about some areas of the Greenbelt that would be slated for housing. The King lands were bought for $80 million by a company headed by Michael Rice in September. Rice also heads Rice Group, which has several large-scale developments in York Region.
Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark have both denied that the government tipped off any developers about the Greenbelt lands opening for development beforehand.
King mayor pushes back
King Mayor Steve Pellegrini denied having any advance knowledge that the Greenbelt lands would be open for development. He said he has asked Stiles for a formal apology.
He said he has never spoken with Ford or Clark on the matter.
Pellegrini said they have been looking for a new site for a Southlake Regional Health Centre since 2019, and had explored the area for that reason. He said a different landowner had offered land in that vicinity.
When Rice bought the King Greenbelt lands in the summer, Pellegrini said they met to talk about it. He said there was no indication at that time the Greenbelt land would be opened for housing development, and Rice did not indicate anything like that.
“We met with them, we said, ‘Wow, you’re buying Greenbelt, you plan on farming?” Pellegrini recounted. “They came out and upfront and said ‘we have land holdings all over Ontario and Canada.’”
“Quite frankly, I just assumed they were doing what many others do, and land bank,” Pellegrini added.
But at that point, Pellegrini said he did ask Rice if some of his land could be made available for a Southlake site, and Rice said yes.
Even though the land was still Greenbelt, Pellegrini said the province would have the authority to put a hospital there and keep it Greenbelt.
“A hospital is a provincial institution. It is permitted in the Greenbelt. We’re not asking for it (the lands) to be removed (from the Greenbelt),” he said. “We’re asking for a hospital. It’s no different than a highway or a transit.”
Asked about that going against the spirit of the Greenbelt as untouched greenspace and farmland, Pellegrini said the province would have to factor that against other community needs.
“You would have to weigh the health and wellness of the community, as well,” he said, adding that Southlake is “bursting at the seams.”
With Rice agreeing to provide some land, Pellegrini said they held a meeting Nov. 1 to talk about it with Southlake representatives. He said the timing of the provincial Greenbelt announcement Nov. 4 was coincidental, and they had no idea it was coming.
Pellegrini said King is not in favour of lands being taken out of the Greenbelt. The township passed another resolution Dec. 12, stating it is not in favour of changing the Greenbelt boundaries and asking the province to ensure natural heritage areas remain protected and the development will have high environmental standards. It also asks for 25 per cent of the units to come there be dedicated as affordable housing.
The township’s resolution on the Southlake site also specifies that it opposes provincial plans to redesignate a portion of King's Oak Ridges Moraine as a settlement area. That area is situated right next to the Greenbelt lands in King.
“I’m just advocating, like any other mayor in the region, to have a hospital in their community,” he said.
Prentice said the NDP approached him about blog posts he made regarding his FOI request, and a letter he sent to the provincial integrity commissioner about it.
He said he hopes the investigation yields the truth and he questions the denials that developers weren't tipped off about the Greenbelt.
“The whole thing is absurd,” said Prentice, a former MP in the United Kingdom who also ran for a Newmarket deputy mayor seat in last fall's election.
The NDP highlighted other details today, including that the broker of record for the transaction of the King Greenbelt lands was John Dunlap, who was on the Southlake board until September.
The NDP further noted that Rice is a regular Ontario Conservative donor, having donated more than $10,000 to the party since 2018.
“The more we learn about the days and months around this deal, the week, the shadier this becomes,” Stiles said.
Prentice said he has made more freedom of information requests to the township and Southlake to find out about the meeting and what they each may have known.
“Asking the obvious questions and sticking with it until you get the answers,” Prentice said.