Nearly 20 years after suing the province, trying to embarrass a former premier and pushing to change local zoning rules, a prominent Ontario developer may finally be ready to cash in on his multimillion-dollar gamble involving the Greenbelt.
In 2003, Silvio De Gasperis of the Tacc group of companies began buying up cheap tracts of farmland in northern Pickering, Ontario, east of Toronto, hoping to turn them into lucrative subdivisions. Just two years later, those plans began to crumble.
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 ordinance. In 2005, former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government also included the preserved lands in what it called the Greenbelt – a sprawling 810,000 hectare area of farmland, forest and wetlands. stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough – marking it off limits for development.
De Gasperis told the National Post in March 2005 that the province’s decision to include PARD in the Greenbelt would cost his company about $240 million in lost revenue.
“McGuinty has hurt me before,” De Gasperis told the Toronto Star in 2006. “I’m going to hurt her.”
De Gasperis then launched a campaign to thwart the Greenbelt plans, working with Pickering to develop the preserved land anyway, and eventually sued the province. His efforts failed and the farmland remained protected, with De Gasperis unable to build new housing estates as he had originally planned.
But that could soon change thanks to the Ford government proposal to release thousands of hectares of land from the Greenbelt in 15 regions of the province, including the DRAP. It 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 “cheated as a planner and as a citizen” given that Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Housing, Steve Clark, both promised to leave the Greenbelt alone.
“It is, in my view, to reward the land development interests who own this land and who are clearly of paramount interest to the government,” Doyle said.
Protect the Reserve
The DRAP contains about 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 before a planned airport was built in nearby Pickering. When the airport failed, the government began reselling the land to tenants and farmers in the late 1990s at a discount because the easements placed on the land only served it for agricultural purposes at perpetuity.
Still, developers, including De Gasperis, began buying plots and working with the city of Pickering to get permission to build housing.
After the McGuinty government included the reserve in the Greenbelt in February 2005, the city attempted to revoke some of the easements. In response, the province reinstated them by passing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, which entrenched the agricultural status of the land in law.
By then De Gasparis had launched a campaign to embarrass the McGuinty government.
According to media reports, he leaked a letter with details of an invitation-only, $10,000-per-plate fundraising dinner McGuinty hosted with promoters before the Greenbelt boundaries were drawn.
De Gasperis told the media in 2006 that he 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”
The lands in and around the DRAP in Pickering make up the bulk of protected lands that could be opened up for development under the Ford government’s proposed changes to the Greenbelt.
In addition, last week the government unveiled a bill that would repeal the law protecting the DRAPwhich would remove barriers to housing construction.
A CBC Toronto analysis of property and company records released earlier this month, companies found with De Gasperis and his brothers, Carlo and Michael De Gasperis, listed as administrators had paid approximately $8 million for 16 properties on the reserve, totaling 506 hectares.
Bonnie Littley, co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition which 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,” Littley said. “It’s probably the most protected land in all of Ontario.”
Littley said she is now trying to rekindle her old network of concerned citizens and connect with new ones to oppose the province’s greenbelt proposal.
“If the greenbelt is allowed to be touched now, what about all the other developers who own land in the greenbelt? Are they lining up at Doug Ford’s door already?” she asked.
In a statement released last week, the conservation authority said the province’s proposal involving DRAP could lead to “large-scale unplanned urbanization” and negatively impact nearby watersheds.
“Unlike the typical process followed for other urbanization proposals, there has not been a watershed plan or sub-watershed plan and supporting environmental studies carried out for this area involving [TRCA] to inform this decision,” the statement read.
A spokesman for Clark, the housing minister, declined to say whether developers had lobbied for specific lots to be opened.
“Ontario is in the midst of a housing supply crisis, and the government is considering all possible options to get more homes built faster,” wrote Victoria Podbielski.
“The fifteen sites identified had to meet very clear criteria that allowed for the rapid construction of houses and the expansion of the Greenbelt.
Podbielski said the province decided to repeal the DRAP law after receiving requests from the former and current mayor of Pickering.
Tight construction schedule can be met, mayor says
It is unclear what will happen to the preserved land – whether the De Gasperis family and other landowners in the area plan to build on the land they own or sell it.
CBC Toronto contacted 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 emailed went unanswered.
If the Greenbelt land swap proceeds, the Ford government has said it expects landowners to quickly prepare housing plans, with construction expected to begin no later than 2025. Otherwise, the land will regain its previous protected status.
Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe said the local council had been calling for the development of the DRAP for 20 years, arguing that its inclusion in the Greenbelt was based on “political science”, not “real science”.
He thinks the province’s tight schedule can be met.
“Having a choice of housing – lower, single-family as well as other options – I think is a good mix and is something that I think will be welcomed by our community,” Ashe said.
The De Gasperis brothers, who also own properties in Vaughan and Richmond Hill that are to be removed from the Greenbelt, are prolific donors to Ontario political parties.
According to data from Elections Ontario, the De Gasperis brothers and their companies — Tacc Developments, Tacc Construction, Arista Homes and Opus Homes — 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.
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, according to the data.
Other family members seem to have donated tens of thousands more.
CBC Toronto matched the names listed, but was unable to independently verify that the contributors are the same people.
The De Gasperis family businesses 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 regarding the Greenbelt.