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‘They were looking at the Greenbelt:’ Inside the deal from 2 developers’ perspectives

TORONTO — While no one explicitly told developers that Ontario planned to open up the protected Greenbelt for housing last year, the government telegraphed that message to builders through actions – and silence, the province’s integrity commissioner found.

Central to that indirect communication was a conference where certain developers had access to the housing minister’s chief of staff – two investigations found those builders ended up with 92 per cent of the sites taken out of the Greenbelt.

What took place at that conference, and some of what followed, is laid out in the report issued last week by commissioner J. David Wake, offering insight into the world of Ontario’s developers and how they interact with the government. 

“Communication … can take many forms. It is not confined to the spoken word,” Wake wrote in the report that described housing minister’s chief-of-staff, Ryan Amato, receiving packages from developers and later seeking further information. 

“I find that these actions were tantamount to Mr. Amato saying the words he had been careful not to say.”

Wake found that then-housing minister Steve Clark violated ethics rules during the province’s process of removing 15 sites from the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and adding land to the protected area elsewhere. Clark resigned days after the report while Amato resigned in mid-August, but denied wrongdoing.

Wake’s investigation featured interviews with two prominent developers, Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice – neither responded to a request for comment from The Canadian Press. Amato’s lawyer also did not respond to a request for comment.

De Gasperis, the CEO of TACC Group of Companies, had for decades wanted to develop homes on one of his properties – known as Cherrywood – but it was in the Greenbelt, Wake wrote. 

De Gasperis owned the land in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering, Ont., even prior to the creation of the Greenbelt in 2005 and felt it had improperly been made part of the protected area. He took the province to court over the designation, but ultimately lost.

The developer brought up the property with Premier Doug Ford after the Progressive Conservatives won the June 2018 election, “telling him Cherrywood is the perfect land for housing.”

Ford told De Gasperis he couldn’t do it. 

The premier did not touch the Greenbelt in his first term – he initially told developers in February 2018 that he planned to open up the area but backtracked during the election campaign. 

De Gasperis nonetheless took note of the Progressive Conservatives’ pledge to build Highway 413 north of Toronto, a route running through Greenbelt land.

“This suggested to him there might be an opportunity to revisit the government’s Greenbelt policy,” Wake wrote.

When Ford won the 2022 election, De Gasperis set his sights on Amato, Clark’s chief of staff. 

The opportunity to speak with Amato came on Sept. 14, 2022, at a dinner at the Building Industry and Land Development conference. 

De Gasperis was seated at the same table as Amato and came armed with a package that his daughter, the director of planning for TACC Developments, put together to make the case for Cherrywood.

“I have a package I want you to take a look at – there was an injustice done at Cherrywood and I want you to take a look,” De Gasparis said to Amato. 

He handed over the envelope and told Amato to reach out to his daughter with questions. Amato said he would take a look.

Cherrywood, barren of houses, was the “biggest disappointment in his career,” De Gasperis told Wake.

De Gasperis’ daughter told the integrity commissioner she did not see an opportunity to raise Greenbelt removal requests with the province until the 2022 election, when she noticed Ford did not renew his commitment to not touch the area. 

“From that silence, she saw an opening that it might be reconsidering that position,” Wake wrote.

In early October, Amato called Alana De Gasperis seeking more information. She asked if Cherrywood would be removed from the Greenbelt.

“The government is looking at everything at this moment and have not made any decisions,” Amato told her. 

She then asked if he could look at other properties.

“He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no,” she told the integrity commissioner.

She took that opportunity to tell Amato about three other sites: one in Richmond Hill, Ont., another in Vaughan, Ont., and one in Hamilton that TACC co-owned with a friend of her father’s. 

She heard little from Amato until Nov. 3, 2022, when he called her to deliver good news: those four parcels of land were coming out of the Greenbelt.

Also at the same developers’ dinner where Silvio De Gasperis had handed his Cherrywood package to Amato was Michael Rice, another prominent land developer.

Rice told the integrity commissioner he thought it was likely the Greenbelt would be opened up, particularly after the government passed legislation giving the housing minister power to decide growth areas and reducing the role of conservation authorities.

“If, by 2022, a developer was not thinking about the Greenbelt opening up, ‘they were asleep,'” Rice, who leads the Rice Group of Companies, told Wake.

In December 2021, Rice had staff identify Greenbelt lands he could purchase and, by May 2022, he entered into an agreement to buy a 687-acre property in King Township, Ont., with partners for $80 million.

That deal closed on Sept. 15, 2022, the day after the dinner where Rice spoke briefly with Amato. 

“If you guys are looking at the Greenbelt lands, I have something great that is the site you need to look at,” Rice had told Amato, according to Wake.

A few days later, Amato called Rice seeking more information. Amato then came to Rice’s office to pick up an information package at the end of September.

Amato’s visit told Rice “they were looking at the Greenbelt,” the developer told Wake.

A little more than a month later that land would no longer be in the Greenbelt.

Days after Wake’s report, Ford announced a review of all Greenbelt lands. The new housing minister has said that process could see sites added or removed to the area. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2023.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press