Approval of 35k homes Tuesday will threaten Greenbelt, trigger devastating tax hike for Caledon residents; Groves goes back on her word

In 2018, Doug Ford was caught on camera promising a room full of sprawl builders that if they helped get him elected, he would open up a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt at the request of “some of the biggest developers in this country”.

Almost immediately after he was elected, he reinstated a tossed out plan for the proposed 413 Highway, a 400-series corridor that would cut across the southern edge of the Greenbelt, opening up thousands of acres for subdivision development. But in 2021, a wrench was thrown in the plan when the federal government designated the project for an Impact Assessment.

Just over a year later, Ford’s team began working on plan B, the Greenbelt land grab, that would open up 7,400 acres of prime, protected greenspace for residential construction by many of the same powerful developers. After widespread public backlash, and reports from two of the province’s top watchdogs highlighting backroom dealing to benefit preferred developers, several cabinet ministers and senior staffers resigned, forcing Ford to ditch his latest scheme.

But not before an ongoing RCMP investigation was launched to determine if any criminal wrongdoing was involved in the behind-the-scenes plan.

Now, plan C to get the Greenbelt opened up appears destined to succeed.

On Tuesday June 25, Caledon council members will take a vote to rezone 12 parcels of land within the GTA’s largest municipality, a rural expanse where the Greenbelt has been protected for two decades.

Across its southern third, along, and in some cases within the Greenbelt, 35,000 new homes will likely be approved. Caledon Mayor Annette Groves has gone back on the promise she made just a few weeks ago, when she assured angry residents that no vote would be taken before the end of summer. Weeks later, she is suggesting she has enough support from councillors to force her controversial motion through on Tuesday, opening the door for one of the largest development approvals in the country’s history.

The Region of Peel has called the mayor’s alarming move, “premature” and said the cost for just the water infrastructure to support a little more than a third of the 35,000 new homes would be $12.9 billion.

Homeowners on fixed incomes might be forced to move, experts have warned, with property taxes having to double or even triple to pay for all the municipal infrastructure to accommodate some 100,000 new residents, more than doubling Caledon’s current population.

Advocates opposed to Groves’ developer-driven push, say they are not against growth, but they are opposed to reckless sprawl where there is no existing infrastructure, which will cost billions of dollars more than smart, compact growth around Caledon’s existing population centres such as Bolton.

No planning protections have been put in place to ensure the roughly 100,000 new residents will not be housed in sprawl. No environmental work has been completed to safeguard watersheds and critical ecosystems. Federal and provincial legislation which could make Groves’ developer-driven move illegal, have been ignored.

And the mayor has failed to explain how taxpayers will be protected from the crippling infrastructure costs that could eventually double, even triple property taxes to pay the billions of dollars required for the construction of a city larger than what currently exists in Caledon, where only 80,000 residents reside now.

If just four councillors vote for Groves’ unprecedented housing plan, they will trigger massive stretches of sprawl development in and immediately around the Greenbelt, where developers own land that Ford promised would be opened up for development.

“It's not coincidental,” Debbe Crandall, resident and co-founder of Democracy Caledon, told The Pointer, connecting the zoning bylaws up for a vote Tuesday to the Greenbelt scandal.

When Mayor Groves first publicized her zoning bylaws to open up the 12 land parcels developers are itching to build on, the draft pieces of legislation (one for each parcel) were put on a council meeting agenda as a communication item in March. They were written by municipal lawyer Quinto Annibale, a prominent development lawyer who, as was later learned, was also representing one of the landowner groups trying to get its properties developed.

Democracy Caledon was formed in response and held its inaugural meeting, as residents expressed their shock and frustration over Groves’ conduct.

The usual publicly-driven planning process had been completely ignored. Instead, control over the shaping of their community had been handed over to powerful developers.

Crandall and Nicola Ross, the co-founders of Democracy Caledon, said Caledon was losing sight of its democratic purpose. Groves had failed to be transparent with residents who only two years ago elected her on a platform that promised responsible growth and a planning approach guided by taxpayers.

The following week, the Town held a statutory public meeting on the 12 proposed bylaws that came out of nowhere, a meeting which lasted seven hours, ending at two in the morning, one of the longest in Caledon history. Town Hall overflowed across multiple spaces that had to be opened up to accommodate hundreds of anxious residents.

Dozens of residents voiced frustration over questions that were not answered and the disturbing lack of transparency in the mayor’s rush to push her zoning bylaws through. They wanted to know why the bylaws need to be passed now, why strong mayor powers were being used, how billions of dollars would be raised and how the Town can ensure that the developers will build the type of housing Caledon — and Ontario — needs. No satisfactory answers were given; the default response was that Caledon is growing and, at the hands of the province, needs to meet its housing pledge — a pledge that is 22,000 homes less than the 35,000 set to be approved on the 12 parcels.

In a blanket statement made at the April 30 council meeting, when the bylaws were originally slated to be voted on, Mayor Groves acknowledged that residents’ concerns were not addressed, and pledged to hold four public information meetings to collect feedback and hear from the residents on the kind of Caledon they want to shape.

Groves ran for mayor in 2022 on a mantra that “Caledon will plan Caledon”. Instead, she has allowed developer interests to take over the role. In March, residents were stunned when Groves brought forward 12 proposed bylaw amendments that, it was later learned, were written by a well known development lawyer who was representing a landowner group seeking to develop one of the 12 parcels.

The Region of Peel sent 12 letters to the Town (one for each proposed bylaw) — which Caledon officials refused to make public despite direction from the Region to do so — warning that the bylaws were “premature” and that many did not even conform with the Region’s or the Town’s own Official Plans. Numerous studies required prior to the passage of any bylaws have not been done, to ensure natural heritage areas are protected, a range of environmental issues including wetland and species protection are addressed and critical transportation needs have been dealt with.

While Caledon’s head of planning, Eric Lucic, has since said 95 percent of the Region’s comments have been “addressed”, much of the required work would take years.

After promising all issues would be properly dealt with with the participation of the public, following the widespread backlash, Groves has broken her promise to wait till after the summer to revisit the bylaws. She is claiming Tuesday’s vote is a consequence of staff bringing the bylaws forward, which is not how legislation is handled by local government, where elected officials bring motions forward and give staff direction.

Lucic acknowledged as much to the Globe and Mail recently when he said, “I’m waiting on direction” before the bylaws can even be brought forward for a vote.

It was Groves who chose to circumvent staff from the process entirely, by having an outside development lawyer write her proposed bylaws.

At one of the four public meetings promised after the backlash, Lucic said the bylaws should not come forward at this time.

“Right now the Official Plan rests with the Region of Peel,” he said. “We're going through a period with the transition of the Region of Peel, so we're seeking that clarification about what's going to happen, whether the Region will continue to be an approval agency for that, or whether it will be the Province.” He said Caledon is “hoping to figure out” who has the authority… “I believe you can't enact the zoning until the Peel OP comes into play, because then it would conflict with the Official Plan.”

This has not stopped Groves from rushing ahead, once again.

“In two terms, we go from being the envy of the GTA to being the laughingstock of the GTA,” Crandall told The Pointer, referring to public advocacy that helped Caledon ward off pressure from developers while planning for smart growth.

“It's always been the case that it's a very particular kind and subset of developers that benefit from the changes that the Ontario government is making and the local scandals that it essentially engineers are perhaps the first highly visual example of that,” Phil Pothen, who deals with land use policy for Environmental Defence, told The Pointer, referring to developers who buy up greenfield land not slated for development then use various tactics to lobby for their rezoning.

He said these are the developers Ford has decided to side with, and it appears Groves is in support of that.

“The government is picking these land speculators over the kind of infill developers who could actually solve our housing shortage,” Pothen said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for zoning policies that prioritize density to avoid deforestation and loss of wetlands which lead to much greater levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Sprawl style development dramatically increases carbon use for heating and cooling larger houses, increased time spent in vehicles (often on highways) and a range of energy requirements to build and maintain non-compact municipalities.

“It is absolutely unconscionable,” Crandall added, expressing that while she does not have all the answers right now, she and other Democracy Caledon supporters will be exhausting all avenues to oppose the bylaws on Tuesday.

Bill 185, the Cutting Red Tape to Build More Homes Act, which received Royal Assent on June 6, removes the right of any third party — including the residents of Caledon — to appeal a decision. If the bylaws are passed on Tuesday, only the Town, the Province and the developers have any ability to make compromises or concessions later on.

Groves has claimed that once the bylaws are passed, effectively opening the door to developers who want to get shovels in the ground as soon as possible, provisions can be introduced to have key studies done to ensure steps are taken to address issues such as species and wetland protection and proper transportation planning.

Experts have pointed out this is a backward approach.

“[W]hen you give Zoning Bylaw permission to do something, you've essentially acknowledged that that is an appropriate use for the site that's supportable,” Pothen said. “I would be very skeptical about any claim that once you give someone permission to do something through a zoning bylaw, the municipality will be able to modify or limit that permission without repealing the zoning part altogether.”

Some of the parcels — which together total approximately 5,000 acres — already have development applications on them. A previous investigation by The Pointer found 29 species at risk living within the study corridor of the proposed 413 Highway. Given the proximity of the 12 parcels to the proposed highway, it is likely that many of these species also inhabit the lands in question.

A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada told The Pointer the Ministry was not consulted by the Town of Caledon in the creation of the bylaws. Planning, the Ministry said, is a shared responsibility of the municipal and provincial governments but the federal government does have jurisdiction over things like species at risk, fish populations and migratory bird habitats.

“The reason why federal intervention on the 413 (highway) is so clear cut, and why federal intervention on the Dufferin Rouge Agricultural Preserve would have been so clear cut, is there still are already very clearly identified adverse effects, and that is within federal jurisdiction,” Pothen said. “We haven't gotten there yet. We haven't because we don't know the details because these are blank cheque zoning bylaws. We don't know specifically what's going to be built and before that it is very hard to know what the impact will be.”

He encourages all Caledon residents to contact their local MPPs and MPP candidates for the 2026 election to pressure them to commit to rescinding any bylaws that might be passed Tuesday, following the upcoming election.

“If the (provincial) government wants to do that, it has the legislative power to do so,” he said.

There could also be avenues for a legal challenge, he said, under legislation that guides the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Pothen’s advice to the community is to keep fighting, but he expressed his disappointment with Groves’ decision to bring her bylaws forward now.

“It's a real surprise. To see that someone who is elected on an anti-sprawl platform is throwing that commitment out the window with this proposal to write a blank cheque as far as development.”

Groves will likely be asked on Tuesday about her recent pledge to residents.

“You have my commitment,” she promised just three weeks ago, “that this is not going to be rushed through and I'm going to tell you, we often hear when we have given public information meetings, whether it's in July or August, that people are on vacation. People are not even interested because they're busy in their backyard with their barbecues. So no, we won't have a vote. We're going to have our public sessions. I think there's lots of work to do here.”

Groves was responding to Crandall at the May 23 public meeting.

Less than a month later, she has gone back on her word, as the bylaws will appear for a vote on June 25.

“I didn't see it coming. I thought she would have kept her promise,” Crandall told The Pointer. “Obviously, I'm naive.”

“The phrase open and transparent gets thrown around in politics but in most cases this is just lip service,” Groves wrote on her campaign website in 2022. “I believe that Town Hall belongs to the residents and as Councillors we work for the residents. The people of this town should feel welcome to attend council sessions, ask questions and voice concerns as they see fit. This is democracy!”

Crandall said, “This is a major setback. And it may be that we can't do anything. However, I think there's always hope until there are shovels in the ground.”

On Tuesday, Caledon residents might witness the entire takeover of municipal planning. For perhaps the first time in Canada, through one vote, a municipality will approve more houses than currently exist within its borders. In a press release from the Town, Mayor Groves acknowledged that, even without the 35,000 new homes, Caledon residents can expect a minimum tax hike of 70 percent due to the downloading of certain regional services, expected to happen in the near future.

With changes to development charge collection in the PC government’s controversial Bill 23, which was written on the recommendation of the development industry lobby, current residents of Caledon will shoulder the costs of sprawling subdivisions that many do not want.

“I think if we read about this in a novel we'd be like ‘holy cow'. You can't make this stuff up. It's gobsmacking. It's really disturbing,” Crandall said. “What we don't need right now is all of this uncertainty about so much going forward.”


Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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