Environmental group alleges Ontario broke law over Hamilton's boundary expansion

Ontario has broken the law by forcing Hamilton to expand its boundary into the protected Greenbelt to build homes, an environmental rights group alleged in legal documents as it takes the province to court.

Ecojustice, on behalf of Environmental Defence, has filed a notice of application for a judicial review of the province's decision to impose changes on Hamilton's official plan by expanding the boundary by 2,200 hectares into the Greenbelt.

Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman alleges the province did not follow its own provincial policy statement and "A Place to Grow Act."

Bowman said Housing Minister Steve Clark has the power to amend the City of Hamilton's official plan unilaterally so long as he complies with the act.

"In law, all public decisions have to be reasonable and reasonableness turns on whether or not it's transparent, whether or not it's intelligible why the decision was made, whether or not reasons are provided," Bowman said.

"And here we have no reasons, we have no rationale, we have no analysis explaining how the minister's decision complied with the limitations in the planning act."

The province passed bills this fall to remove land from 15 different areas of the protected Greenbelt in order for 50,000 homes to be built, while adding acres elsewhere.

It is part of the province's move to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years.

A spokeswoman for the housing minister said official plans are among the "most important tools municipalities and the province use in partnership to prepare for future growth and housing needs."

Hamilton's population is expected to grow to more than 800,000 people by 2051, she said.

The city's population is 569,353, Statistics Canada's 2021 census shows.

"That is why, after careful consideration, the minister took the necessary action to accommodate this growth and allow for more desperately needed housing to be built," the minister's spokeswoman, Victoria Podbielski, said.

The City of Hamilton, which is named in the legal action, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but its city council has previously said it's not interested in expanding its boundary.

The city conducted a survey of nearly 20,000 residents in 2021 about whether to expand its urban boundary. More than 90 per cent of respondents said they did not favour expanding the boundary, rather they favoured urban intensification to handle its population growth.

The province's move to develop homes in the Greenbelt has sparked widespread criticism.

Media reports have suggested that some prominent developers who are Progressive Conservative donors bought Greenbelt land in the last few years despite the province's pronouncements it wouldn't be developed. One purchase happened as recently as September, according to investigations by the CBC, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Narwhal.

Both Premier Doug Ford and his housing minister have said the government did not tip off developers ahead of announcing the Greenbelt plan.

Environmental Defence has asked Ontario Provincial Police to investigate the province's Greenbelt moves. The force said last week it is working on determining whether it should investigate.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

In 2018, Ford backtracked on an election pledge to allow housing in the Greenbelt after public backlash. Ford also made a vow in 2020 not to "touch'' the Greenbelt. In 2021, when announcing plans to expand the Greenbelt, the housing minister said he would not cut the protected area or do a land swap.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Tuesday that Ford and his government are being reckless with their plan to open up the Greenbelt.

"Since Ford doesn’t seem to care about the voices of people, legal action seems to be the only thing that might stop this government from bulldozing ahead with their destructive agenda," Schreiner wrote in a statement.

"I will continue to join the thousands of people across Ontario raising their voices to oppose the Ford government’s plan to hand over our Greenbelt to a few PC-friendly land speculators."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press