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Wealthy Ontario developer close to winning long battle to build homes on protected Greenbelt

Almost 20 years after taking the province to court, attempting to embarrass a former premier and pushing to change local zoning rules, a prominent Ontario developer may now finally be set to cash in on his multi-million dollar gamble involving the Greenbelt.

In 2003, Silvio De Gasperis of the Tacc Group of companies started buying up parcels of cheap farmland in north Pickering, Ont., east of Toronto, with hopes of transforming them into lucrative housing subdivisions. Just two years later, those plans began to fall apart.

Much of the land the developer had purchased was located in what is now known as the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP), and was protected by easements and a zoning order. In 2005, former premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government also included the preserve lands in what it called the Greenbelt — a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough — marking it as off limits to development.

De Gasperis told the National Post in March 2005 that the province’s move to include the DRAP in the Greenbelt would cost his company an estimated $240 million in lost revenue. 

“McGuinty has already hurt me,” De Gasperis told the Toronto Star in 2006. “I’m going to hurt him.”

De Gasperis then launched a campaign to stymy plans for the Greenbelt, working with Pickering to develop the preserve land anyway, and eventually took the province to court. His efforts failed and the agricultural land has remained protected, with De Gasperis unable to build new subdivisions as he originally planned.

But that could soon change thanks to the Ford government’s proposal to free up thousands of hectares of Greenbelt land in 15 areas of the province, including the DRAP. This could pave the way for housing and millions in development profits for landowners, including De Gasperis. 

Critics of the Ford government’s plan are raising questions.

Victor Doyle, a former senior provincial planner who helped design the Greenbelt, said he felt “deceived as a planner and as a citizen,” given that Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have both previously promised to leave the Greenbelt alone.

“It’s all about, in my view, rewarding the land development interests who own this land and are clearly of primary interest to the government,” Doyle said.

WATCH | Here’s what Doug Ford has said about developing Ontario’s Greenbelt: 

Here’s what Doug Ford has said over the years about developing Ontario’s Greenbelt

From pledging to never build on it in 2018 to saying it’s part of the solution to Ontario’s housing crisis in 2022, here’s how the premier’s position on the controversial issue has changed.

Protecting the preserve

The DRAP contains around 2,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, according to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

The provincial government expropriated much of it in the 1970s ahead of construction of a planned Pickering airport nearby. When the airport didn’t pan out, the government began selling the land back to tenants and farmers in the late 1990s at a discount because easements placed on the land designated it for agricultural uses only in perpetuity. 

Still, developers — including De Gasperis — began buying up parcels and working with the City of Pickering to obtain permission to build housing.

After the McGuinty government included the preserve in the Greenbelt in February 2005, the city tried to cancel some of the easements. In response, the province reinstated them by passing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, which enshrined the agricultural status of the land in law.

(Neil Joyes/CBC News)

By then, De Gasparis had begun a campaign to embarrass the McGuinty government.

According to media reports, he leaked a letter containing details of an invite-only $10,000-per-plate fundraising dinner McGuinty held with developers before the Greenbelt boundaries were drawn.

De Gasperis told media in 2006 that he had also spent at least $5 million on a series of lawsuits against the Ontario government. The courts ruled against him, and the land has been protected ever since.

‘We thought we were done’

Land in and around the DRAP in Pickering is the largest chunk of protected land that could be opened for development as part of the of the Ford government’s proposed changes to the Greenbelt.

Further, last week the government unveiled a bill that would repeal the legislation protecting the DRAP, which would remove barriers to housing development.

A CBC Toronto analysis of property and corporate records published earlier this month found companies with De Gasperis and his brothers, Carlo and Michael De Gasperis, listed as directors had paid around $8 million for 16 properties in the preserve, totalling 506 hectares.

An aerial view of a portion of the Duffins Creek watershed near the border of Pickering, Ont., and Ajax, Ont., east of Toronto. (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority)

Bonnie Littley, co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition who campaigned in the early 2000s to protect the DRAP, said she was shocked to hear it could soon be open for housing.

“We won. At the time, we thought we were done,” said Littley. “It’s probably the most protected land in all of Ontario.”

Littley said she’s now attempting to revive her former network of concerned citizens and connect with new ones to stand against the province’s Greenbelt proposal. 

“If the Greenbelt is allowed to be touched now, what about all the other developers that own land in the Greenbelt? Are they lining up at Doug Ford’s door already?” she asked.

In a statement last week, the conservation authority said the province’s proposal involving the DRAP could result in “large-scale unplanned urbanization” and negatively impact nearby watersheds. 

“Unlike the typical process followed for other urbanization proposals, there has been no watershed plan or subwatershed plan and supporting environmental studies completed for this area involving [TRCA] to inform this decision,” the statement read.

A spokesperson for Clark, the housing minister, declined to answer whether developers lobbied for specific lands to be opened. 

Housing Minister Steve Clark says the government selected lands for removal from the Greenbelt that are located near existing urban areas and have the potential to be developed quickly. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“Ontario is in a housing supply crisis, and the government is considering every possible option to get more homes built faster,” Victoria Podbielski wrote.

“The fifteen sites identified had to meet very clear criteria that meant homes could be built quickly, and that the expansion of the Greenbelt could be achieved.”

Podbielski said the province moved to repeal the DRAP Act after receiving requests from the former and current mayor of Pickering.

Tight building timeline can be met, mayor says

It’s unclear what the fate of the preserve lands will be going forward — whether the De Gasperis family and other landowners in the area plan to build on the land they own or sell it. 

CBC Toronto reached out to Tacc Developments to request an interview with one of the De Gasperis brothers or a company representative, but an executive assistant said they were out of the country for a family wedding and unable to respond. A list of questions subsequently sent by email went unanswered. 

If the Greenbelt land swap goes forward, the Ford government has said it expects landowners to prepare housing plans quickly, with construction to begin no later than 2025. Otherwise, the land will revert to its previous protected status.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe said the local council has been asking for development on the DRAP for 20 years, arguing its inclusion in the Greenbelt was based on “political science,” not “real science.”

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe says he supports opening the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve for development, and that he’ll push for a mix of housing to be built. (Yan Jun Li/CBC News)

He thinks the province’s tight timeline can be met.

“Having a choice in housing — lower to the ground, single family as well as other options — I think is a good mix and it’s something I think will be welcomed by our community,” Ashe said.

Political donations

The De Gasperis brothers, who also own properties in Vaughan and Richmond Hill that are slated for removal from the Greenbelt, are prolific donors to Ontario political parties.

According to Elections Ontario data, the De Gasperis brothers and their companies — Tacc Developments, Tacc Construction, Arista Homes and Opus Homes — have donated at least $163,362 to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and its politicians since 2014, the last date for which data is available online.

WATCH | Plan to develop Ontario’s Greenbelt for housing sparks criticism: 

Coalition slams plan to build housing in Ontario’s Greenbelt

A coalition of 200 groups and individuals has penned a letter calling out the Ontario government for its plans to have tens of thousands of homes located in the province’s Greenbelt, a swath of protected green space and farmland.

The data shows they also donated at least $84,413 to the Ontario Liberal Party when it was in government and $27,981 to the Ontario NDP, the data shows. 

Other family members appear to have donated tens of thousands more. 

CBC Toronto matched the names listed, but was unable to independently verify the contributors are the same people.

De Gasperis family companies have also employed at least three lobbyists with close ties to the PC government, according to records kept by the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, but none of the records indicate they were hired to influence decisions on the Greenbelt.

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