Province acts to protect farmland
Legislation would reinforce 1999 Pickering deal City taken to task for selling rights to developers
The province has picked green space over new homes and introduced legislation to stop developers from building on Pickering farmland.
“ This government is acting on its plan to conserve Ontario’s prime agricultural land . . . for generations to come,” Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay said yesterday when he introduced legislation to protect 1,900 hectares of land.
This is the second time the province has stepped in to protect the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve.
In 1999, the government sold the land, which had been expropriated for a proposed airport, to farmers at low agricultural prices under an agreement that it would remain green “ in perpetuity.” Purchasers had to agree to a conservation easement that was held by the Town of Pickering ( now a city). Although the property was registered to farmers, developers made deals to buy most of the land and stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars if it can be developed.
In February, the Liberal government announced its final Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt Plan, which included the preserve. A month later, Pickering council, which has wanted to develop some of the land, decided to remove the easements on two-thirds of the properties, and sold the rights to 800 hectares to developers for $ 2.5 million and future considerations of at least $60 million.
“Pickering broke the agreement it signed six years ago, and violated the trust that was placed in the city to protect those lands,” Ramsay said.
Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said he couldn’t comment until he reviewed the legislation. The legislation, which is almost certain to pass, returns the protections that Pickering removed, Ramsay said. In perpetuity, he said, “ means forever.” The developer with the most to lose, Silvio De Gasperis, has a different definition. “ They were in perpetuity until the City of Pickering decided to take them off,” said De Gasperis, who, like Pickering council, maintains that the easements were never meant to be permanent. The land should be developed because it’s well- served by roads and water lines, and the parcels aren’t big enough for farmers anyway, he said. “ They haven’t produced one study to show that these lands are viable agricultural lands.”
De Gasperis owns 600 hectares in the preserve and makes no apology for buying it cheap. “Everybody is always looking for a deal,” he said.
He’s gone to court to develop the land once already and said he’ll do it again. But environmental groups don’t think he’ll have much luck.
“ I think it’s very fitting on Halloween that we have finally driven a stake through the heart of urbanization on the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve,” said David Donnelly, a lawyer for the coalition that fought Pickering’s removal of the easements at the Ontario Municipal Board. The land isn’t just significant to Pickering, he said. “ This sets in motion the continentally significant urban wilderness linkage between the Oak Ridges Moraine and Lake Ontario.” Added Bonnie Littley, of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition, “It’s been such a struggle to defend this agricultural preserve from more car- oriented urban sprawl.”