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'Trust was abused': Newmarket group, mayor respond to Greenbelt report

'I don't think the fight's over," Climate Action Newmarket-Aurora member says after auditor general blasts province's Greenbelt decisions

Newmarket area environmentalists are joining the criticism of the provincial government over its treatment of the Greenbelt in the wake of an auditor’s general report.

The report released Aug. 9 blasts the government for proceeding with removing many sections of the Greenbelt without appropriate consultation or expertise and suggests it was done at the behest of developers who stood to benefit. That includes the removal of the Greenbelt lands just west of Newmarket in King.

Melanie Duckett-Wilson of Climate Action Newmarket-Aurora said it raises questions about what people can trust the government is or is not doing.

“Environment is the last thing on the government’s mind,” she said. “We’re talking about an issue here now with public trust.”

The lands on Newmarket's border were one of many areas removed from the Greenbelt earlier this year, although part of it was instead rezoned as Greenbelt settlement area. York planners have said the province estimates 15,000 people could move into that area, while the Township of King has pushed the province to use part of the lands as the future second site for Southlake Regional Health Centre. 

The selection of those King lands is facing scrutiny by the auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk. They are owned by Green-Lane Bathurst Limited Partnership, a company affiliated with Michael Rice of local developer Rice Group. 

The auditor general said the site was identified as a place of interest by a prominent developer at the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) chair’s dinner Sept 14, 2022. Lysyk said developers approached the housing minister's chief of staff, sitting at the same table as one of those developers, and provided him with a package containing information about removing the Bathurst-King land from the Greenbelt. 

“The way the government assessed and selected lands for removal from, and addition to, the Greenbelt was not publicly transparent, objective or fully informed, and was inconsistent with the vision, goals and processes of the Greenbelt Plan, as well as previous amendments to the Greenbelt boundary,” the report said. “About 92 per cent of the acreage removed from the Greenbelt was from five land sites passed onto the Housing Minister’s chief of staff from two developers, including a land site associated with a third developer.”

NewmarketToday did not receive a reply to a request for comment from Rice Group before publication deadline.

The province has maintained that removing land from the Greenbelt is necessary to help build more housing amid a crisis, despite the auditor general and expert planners identifying that there is more than enough land without the Greenbelt to meet the provincial target of 1.5 million homes in 10 years.

“We've admitted many times today, and I'll continue to admit that we're going to correct the process,” Premier Doug Ford said in a news conference. “But what matters to the people of Ontario is making sure they can afford a home, an attainable home, an affordable home, a regular home like a condo or a rental.”

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said he has never supported removing the lands from the Greenbelt. He has previously criticized the move and also raised the point that the province could have put conditions on developing the land to ensure future housing there could be more affordable, but did not. 

“York Region planners and other planners have demonstrated that the land needed to support growth is available without accessing Greenbelt lands,” Taylor said. “Having said that, if Greenbelt lands were to be removed, it should have been part of a transparent process that allowed everyone to comment especially affected municipalities such as Newmarket. I think it is critical to recognize that increasing housing supply alone will not meaningfully address the housing affordability crisis.”

Opposition parties have called for a reversal of the lands getting removed from the Greenbelt. Duckett-Wilson said Climate Action Newmarket-Aurora also fully supports that and will advocate for returning those Greenbelt lands.

“I don’t think the fight’s over. I think we just need more Ontarians to push back and say this isn’t good enough. That their trust was abused.”