Toronto Star
NEWS, Wednesday, November 5, 2003, p. A23

Liberals hustle to save moraine pledge
Government seeks pact with builders Tory deals put promises in doubt

Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan
Toronto Star

The new Liberal government is scrambling to cut a deal with developers that would save at least part of a disputed section of the Oak Ridges moraine from being cleared for housing, sources say.

Realizing that Premier Dalton McGuinty can't live up to his election promise to stop construction of 6,600 homes, Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen is to announce today a temporary freeze on development while a compromise is worked out.

Gerretsen refused to answer media questions about moraine talks yesterday.

"No comment, no comment ... we will talk in due course," said the veteran Kingston MPP.

Sources say the fledgling government has discovered the previous Conservative regime signed ironclad contracts with developers as part of its much-celebrated deal to protect the environmentally sensitive greenbelt north of Toronto.

The Liberals are confident they can still strike a deal that will protect some of the disputed land, a far cry from the cornerstone promise to stop all 6,600 homes that were allowed to proceed despite an all-party agreement in 2001 to protect the land that is often referred to as the rain barrel for Toronto.

In their platform, the Liberals said: "The Eves government secretly approved a plan to build 6,600 new homes on one of the most sensitive spots on the moraine in Richmond Hill.

We will stop their construction."

The former Conservative government's deals allow subdivisions to be built on seven blocks of property scattered throughout the area bounded by Bathurst St., Bayview Ave., the Jefferson Sideroad and King Rd.

After winning the Oct. 2 election, McGuinty repeated his message, telling reporters he was using the media to send a message to the developers who were constructing new homes on the moraine and opening sales pavilions to attract potential homeowners to halt their efforts. On Oct. 16, McGuinty vowed to make good on the Liberals' campaign promise to protect the moraine, even if it meant scuttling construction already under way and cancelling house sales already made.

"We sent a very clear signal. It's been out there for a very long time now," he said. "We're committed to putting genuine protections to the Oak Ridges moraine, and we've said we're not going to allow the construction of those 6,600 homes."

As a result of McGuinty's warnings, builders involved on the moraine said two weeks ago they were voluntarily closing their sales offices until Nov. 5 pending discussions with the province. In a newsletter yesterday, the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association notified members the voluntary sales hiatus was set to expire today.

Renowned Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby says the new government can still prevent the pristine land from being paved over if it has the political will.

In a legal opinion for Environmental Defence Canada, Ruby concludes the government has a clear path of action to protect the taxpayer from liability arising out of the government's commitment to stop construction on the most sensitive part of the moraine.

"Protecting the moraine doesn't have to cost a bundle. It's clear and simple- the government can stop the construction and limit the amount of money developers unfairly take from the public purse," Ruby said in a statement.

The legal opinion says the Legislature can pass legislation that would allow expropriation of the developers' land. The legislation could also limit compensation for developers to their out-of-pocket expenses in buying the land, and not for any "improvements" to it, Ruby says.

Josh Matlow, director of Earthroots and a former Liberal candidate, denounced news a deal is even being contemplated that would see some of the homes proceed. "They aren't just breaking their promises to environmental groups, they are breaking their promise to the people of Ontario and we are feeling very betrayed," he said.

But Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development Institute, an umbrella organization that represents the developers, said if a compromise is reached, it will demonstrate the Liberals respect existing contracts.

Controversy over the planned 6,600 homes erupted months after the Tories froze development on significant portions of the moraine in November, 2001. As part of the legislation, a last-minute deal between environmentalists and developers was brokered by former Toronto mayor David Crombie. That agreement was supposed to shift development from the contentious Richmond Hill lands- the subject of a long, acrimonious Ontario Municipal Board hearing- to provincial lands in Pickering.

But in June, 2002, then-municipal affairs minister Chris Hodgson signed a rare minister's order giving Richmond Hill developers the right again to build houses on the moraine. The order directed Richmond Hill city planners to change the zoning bylaws and amend their official plan to allow the controversial developments.