Political blogger uncovers evidence for Greenbelt investigation

Political blogger uncovers evidence for Greenbelt investigation

The NDP press conference highlights the Freedom of Information request, which indicates King knew his Green Belt lands would be opened up for development prior to the province’s announcement

Newmarket political blogger Gordon Prentice saw something wrong with the Township of King’s reaction to the province’s announcement that part of its Greenbelt would be opened up for development.

King passed a resolution on Nov. 7 asking the province to convert some of those lands into a new hospital site for the Southlake Regional Health Center. King Mayor Steve Pellegrini said the owner would make part of the Greenbelt land available for the purpose for a small fee.

Prentice said that given the province announced that green belt lands will open up for development on November 4, the timing doesn’t make sense. He sent a request for information to the municipality. The community announced that the mayor met with Southlake and the developers on November 1 about the idea.

“People should connect the dots,” Prentice said. “There are all these questions out there that need to be answered. Really, the genie was out of the bottle.”

Now that information is in the spotlight of an investigation by the provincial integrity officer into whether the province gave developers advance notice of the development of green belt lands. The provincial NDP held a press conference today about the November 1 meeting and other evidence it has presented to the commissioner on the matter.

“Maybe they had a crystal ball,” new NDP leader Marit Stiles said at a news conference. “But it seems to me that someone knew something.”

The Greenbelt lands at King, just west of Newmarket, have been under scrutiny for several months. The province, previously barred from development like the rest of the green belt, included the lands in a Nov. 4 announcement about some areas of the green belt earmarked for housing. The King lands were purchased in September for $80 million by a firm led by Michael Rice. Rice also runs the Rice Group which operates several large scale developments in the York area.

Prime Minister Doug Ford and Minister for Communities and Housing Steve Clark have both denied that the government gave any developers any indication that green belt countries would be opened up to development in advance.

King Mayor strikes back

King Mayor Steve Pellegrini denied knowing in advance that the Green Belt lands would be open for development. He said he asked Stiles for a formal apology.

He said he never spoke to Ford or Clark about the matter.

Pellegrini said they had been scouting and scouting for a new site for a hospital in Southlake since 2019. He said another landowner had offered land that close by.

When Rice bought the lands from King Greenbelt that summer, Pellegrini said they met to discuss it. He said there was no indication at the time that the Greenbelt land would be opened up for housing, and Rice has indicated nothing of the sort.

“We met with them and said, ‘Wow, you’re buying Greenbelt, are you planning to farm?'” Pellegrini recounts. “They came out and said quite frankly, ‘We have land holdings all over Ontario and Canada.'”

“Honestly, I just assumed that they do what a lot of others do and are a land bank,” Pellegrini added.

But at that point, Pellegrini said he asked Rice if some of his land could be made available for a Southlake site, and Rice said yes.

Although the country was still Greenbelt, Pellegrini said the province had the authority to set up a hospital there and keep it Greenbelt.

“A hospital is a provincial institution. It is allowed in the green belt. We’re not asking it (the country) to be removed (from the green belt),” he said. “We want a hospital. It’s no different than a highway or a transit.”

Asked if this goes against the spirit of the green belt as pristine green spaces and farmland, Pellegrini said the province must balance this against other community needs.

“You also have to balance the health and well-being of the community,” he said, adding that Southlake “is bursting at the seams.”

After Rice agreed to make some land available, Pellegrini said they held a meeting on Nov. 1 to discuss it with Southlake officials. He said the timing of the November 4 provincial Greenbelt announcement was coincidental and they had no idea it was coming.

Pellegrini said King is not in favor of taking land from the green belt. The municipality passed another resolution on December 12, saying it was not in favor of changing green belt boundaries and calling on the province to ensure natural heritage areas remain protected and development will meet high environmental standards. It also requires that 25 percent of the units coming there be designated as affordable housing.

The community’s resolution on the Southlake property also states that it opposes plans by the province to redesignate a portion of King’s Oak Ridges Morraine for human settlements. This area is right next to the Greenbelt lands in King.

“I’m just advocating, like every other mayor in the region, to have a hospital in their community,” he said.

The investigations are ongoing

Prentice said the NDP approached him about blog posts he made regarding his FOI request and a letter he sent to the provincial integrity officer regarding it.

He said he hoped the investigation would reveal the truth and he questioned the denial that the developers hadn’t received any notice of the Greenbelt.

“The whole thing is absurd,” said Prentice, a former UK MP who also ran for a seat as deputy mayor of Newmarket in last autumn’s general election.

The NDP today highlighted additional details including that John Dunlap, who served on Southlake’s board until September, was the broker of record for the King Greenbelt lands transaction.

The NDP further noted that Rice is a regular contributor to Ontario Conservatives, having donated more than $10,000 to the party since 2018.

“The more we learn about the days and months surrounding this deal, the week, the more dodgy it gets,” Stiles said.

Prentice said he sent more RFIs to the community and Southlake to find out more about the meeting and what they may have known.

“Ask the obvious questions and stick with it until you get the answers,” Prentice said.

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