Ontario looks at returning land to Greenbelt after owner lists properties for sale

TORONTO — Ontario is looking at returning land slated for housing to the Greenbelt after a company tried to sell two parcels removed from the protected area for development, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday.

In a written statement, Ford said the government learned the owner of the two areas in Ajax, Ont., had put up the properties for sale.

"At no point was the intention to sell disclosed to the government’s facilitator during active and ongoing discussions," Ford said.

"This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people. In response, our government is exploring every option available to us, including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt."

A representative for the land owner suggested there had been a misunderstanding, saying the international owner was seeking a development partner and "at no time was the property going to be sold outright."

Ford's office said the province could return the land to the Greenbelt through regulatory changes.

The premier also said he was issuing a warning to other owners of sites removed from the Greenbelt for housing.

"To the other property owners, you’re on notice: if you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt," Ford said.

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

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

The move sparked anger from critics and several investigations by different authorities.

The auditor general found earlier this month that the province gave preferential treatment to certain developers when it removed land from the Greenbelt.

Bonnie Lysyk said that developers who had access to the housing minister's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, at a developer conference wound up with 92 per cent of the land. The owners of the sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion, she found.

Amato recently resigned from his job.

The auditor general's report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or the landowner for the land recently listed for sale. It also lists a numbered company as the owner of those sites.

Property records show the land was bought by the numbered company in June 2018 for $15.8 million. The property includes a three-bedroom home built in 1880.

A family owned the land for more than a century before putting it up for sale, a listing at the time shows.

The family said in that listing that it was 104 acres in the Greenbelt and a "high profile location." The family wrote that they initiated the process of exempting the land from the Greenbelt designation with the province back in 2013.

"Supports a mix use development. Potential of huge financial reward!" the listing reads.

The property was then put up for sale again in February 2022 for $1 but wasn't sold.

Armand Reale, listed as the president of Buena Vista on LinkedIn, said he is not the owner or developer of the land.

"I was part of a group of consultants assembled by the owner including planner and lawyers to help them respond to the government process," he wrote in an email, referring inquiries to the land owner's representative, John Dong.

Dong, who is listed as the real estate agent on the 2018 purchase and 2022 sale listing, said the situation was "all misunderstood."

Dong said his client, Yuchen Lu, is not a developer and bought the land in 2018 "to hold as an investment."

"My clients have no development experience and required a partner with the requisite experience to meet the government's policy objective to have shovels in the ground in 2025," Dong, a real estate agent with Homelife New World Realty, said in an email.

"To accomplish this we engaged in a process to a find joint venture partner with the experience necessary to help us develop the property."

The auditor general found that 98 per cent of that land is classified as the highest quality soil that produces cash crops. It is also a priority area that maintains Greenbelt connectivity in the Ajax and Whitby, Ont., corridor.

There is another issue that will have to be considered should developers move ahead with housing in that area.

The Town of Ajax designated heritage status on a collection of buildings on the site in 2021. No one objected to the status, the town's documents note.

The land is known as the Nicholas Austin Property, the town's heritage bylaw on the property says. The heritage designation is primarily on the property's old buildings.

"The property contains one of the oldest remaining dwellings in the town, a collection of interesting agricultural buildings and a rare example of an early airplane hangar," the bylaw reads.

The town controls the fate of the heritage buildings, a spokeswoman said.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Tuesday that the latest development in the Greenbelt controversy is proof that some are trying to get richer off the Greenbelt land swap.

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said all of the Greenbelt land removed by Ford's government should be returned.

"Ford's Conservatives are changing their tune simply because they got caught," she said.

Both leaders called on the housing minister to resign.

Ford said last week that he was confident nothing criminal took place in his government's process of removing land from the Greenbelt. He and Clark have also said they didn't know how sites removed from the protected area were selected.

The integrity commissioner is investigating both Clark and Amato while the RCMP have said they are weighing whether they will investigate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2023.

Liam Casey and Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press