Premier Doug Ford has announced that he is reversing his plan to open the Greenbelt for housing development.
“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I’m very very sorry,” he said. “It was a mistake.”
Ford said it was a decision made after two days of meetings with his caucus and cabinet that shared what they had been hearing from people in their communities.
He assured the province he was listening and that no changes would be made in the future.
He later announced he would be expanding the Greenbelt by 400 acres.
Last year, Ford removed 15 parcels of Greenbelt land for housing development to help meet the goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031. The initial backlash from the province grew as investigators probed over findings that prominent land developers would be benefiting from the plan.
Ford’s stag-and-doe event for his daughter in February which had taken place a year before added to the controversy after it was found some of those developers had been in attendance.
He said at a Thursday media conference that the integrity commissioner cleared him of any allegations amid questions about his cabinet’s ties to developers that owned the removed Greenbelt lands.
MPP Kaleed Rasheed resigned from Ford’s cabinet on Sept. 20 when contradicting accounts were found on his relationship with a developer whose land was removed from the Greenbelt.
He was the second minister to quit the conservative caucus amid investigations following former housing minister Steve Clark in early September.
“Even if you do something for the right reasons, with the best of intentions, it can still be wrong,” Ford said.
“This process left too much room for people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives,” he said.
In early September, Ford announced the province would be conducting a “top to bottom” review of the Greenbelt two years ahead of schedule. He didn’t rule out that the results could lead to more land being removed.
Further pressure to reverse the plan came in August when the auditor general’s report said targets could be met without cutting into the protected lands and that the government did not factor in the environmental and agricultural implications that could occur from those changes.
The report also found that 76 per cent of the lands are actively used for agriculture and that the majority is recognized as the highest quality in land classification.
Its top recommendation was to bring the removed lands back into the Greenbelt.
Max Hansgen, a farmer near Lanark, Ont., and president of the Ontario National Farmers Union, said the Greenbelt contributes to more than 50 per cent of all fruit grown in Ontario.
He said that this plan could have set a “precedent” for future development, but is “optimistic” that Ford will not break his promise again.
“Public outcry was so loud. I think that the Ford government has realized this could have been a deal breaker,” Hansgen said.
However, he remains concerned farmland in Ontario is still under threat of development.
“Development is happening in my area on top of farms already,” Hansgen said. “That fight is not over.”
Ford said the way homes are being built will be reworked by building more density in growing cities and building homes that are financially attainable to “young families and newcomers,” and have homes close to public transit.
But he admitted scrapping the Greenbelt plan will have its implications.
“We’re in a crisis, make no mistake about it,” Ford said. “The intention was right. We need to build homes.
“There’s now going to be 150,000 people who will not have a roof over their heads,” he said.
Ford said he will be holding builders and municipalities accountable to get homes built as quickly as possible.