The Greenbelt Gravy Train Will Run Us Off the Tracks.

Written by Jamie MacMaster

My suspicions were first aroused in the spring of '07 when an organization calling itself SOS (Save Ontario's Species) ran Ontario-wide radio ads hailing the McGuinty Government's new and improved Endangered Species Act; yet another law, in a long list of legislation, that empowers the government to acquire private land without enduring the inconvenience of paying for it.

It turned out that SOS was just a coalition of environmental NGOs that had joined forces to advance a mutual cause - Ontario Nature, Environmental Defence, and the Suzuki gang, just to name a few of the usual suspects. Now, most of these environmental NGOs, by virtue of having charity status, are already the recipients of government largesse. The countless millions that roll into their coffers are not subject to the confiscation that the rest of us have to bear in order to enjoy the benefits of our nanny-state. But I figured there had to be much more to the cheerleading than just simple gratitude, because the ads were pure, unadulterated praise - as my Uncle used to say, "just a little too sweet to be wholesome." It was time to follow the money trail.

The first little slither-mark appeared in the dirt when a particularly sadistic journalist friend emailed me a Greenbelt brochure, along with the suggestion that I could still make a donation for my 2007 income tax. As my blood pressure mounted (and I debated whether to censor my response just in case his wife opened it) my eye caught a name down in the right-hand corner of the pamphlet where the Greenbelt directors were listed: Richard Smith. And I wondered, "Would this be the same Dr. Rick Smith who heads up Environmental Defence?" Which is precisely the same question that I fired back to the journalist.

It is from little questions such as this, that big stories grow. What follows are excerpts from Mr. Ian Cumming's article, titled "Greenbelt grants – A new name for money laundering?" that appeared in Ontario Farmer and The Landowner magazine:

"The Executive Director of Environmental Defence, Rick Smith, is a Greenbelt Director and his organization received $600,000 from the $10 million that has already been spent from the $25 million Friends of the Greenbelt fund. The Executive Director of Ontario Nature, Caroline Schultz, is another Greenbelt Director and her group netted $235,000. Stuart Hilts, a Guelph University professor in charge of the Land and Water Stewardship Programs sits on the Greenbelt advisory board and his academic department walked away with $400,000. The Executive Producer of the Royal Winter Fair, William Duron, is a Greenbelt director and the Fair got $600,000 over three years."

By the time Mr. Cumming had finished with his list it was quite apparent that $2.3 million – almost a quarter of the ten million spent – has been shelled out to organizations with direct ties to various Greenbelt directors and advisors. Incredibly, the president of the Greenbelt Foundation mounted a de facto defence of the practices by acknowledging that the conflict was necessary to ensure that the "best people" were on the board.

When I was a kid I used to read the contest rules on the backs of cornflakes boxes. Invariably there was a caveat that "This contest is not open to employees of Kellogg's Canada or their families." Back then, I could only see it from the perspective of a Kellogg's kiddie who had won the bike but wouldn't be able to take it home. But my mother was able to explain the necessity of those rules in words that an eight-year old could understand. I think I can still spell it out in those simple terms should any of the Greenbelt hoi polloi require such edification.

The Greenbelt Commission notes that there are guidelines in place so that none of the funding can be used for salaries, but Garry Otten, a Peterborough County Realtor scoffs at the suggestion that this makes things okay. "What a crock. A kid could see through that. If you already have, let's say, $1 million in the kitty from donations, doesn't the infusion of another half-million - only for expenses - free up a larger portion of your original million for salaries?" Otten says that this should be a wake-up call for residents who see the Greenbelt as an environmental saviour. "And this is the agency that wants to expand its influence? Boy, everyone better take a long, hard look at what's going on here."

And although the movers and shakers would like us to believe that the advent of GTA Greenbelt represented some sort of a breakthrough in environmental protection, nothing could be further from the truth. The National Capital Commission (NCC) Greenbelt that girdles the City of Ottawa predates its Trawnah cousin by almost half a century, and, since the best predicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, it might be worthwhile to examine just one example of what has happened in Ottawa.

The Woodburn family farm was expropriated by the NCC in 1963 to become part of Ottawa's Greenbelt. The Woodburns got $100,000 as compensation for their land and were permitted to stay on as tenants until 1994, when the NCC refused to renew the lease; the Woodburns had to move. The NCC subsequently declared the land surplus, and had the City of Gloucester rezone the land commercial. The land was sold directly to a developer and generated a profit for the National Capital Commission of $6.7 million dollars. The Woodburns went all the way to the federal Court to stop the sale, and lost. So much for buffer zones in perpetuity. So much for Realtors and other private enterprises. We can only speculate what the spin-offs would have been if the Woodburns had been allowed to undertake and profit from the rezoning, and involve the local Real Estate community in the various transactions.

The whole process was so odious (odoriferous?) that Justice J. Heneghan of the Federal Court felt compelled to comment:

"Considering the fact that the Greenbelt was conceived as a "buffer zone" against encroaching urban sprawl, the steps taken by the NCC to declare the land surplus and to obtain a rezoning of the land seem more consistent with accommodation of urban sprawl, rather than resistance to the erosion of green areas. When one considers this, in combination with the fact that the sale of the land generated a profit for the National Capital Commission of $6.7 million dollars, one cannot help but question the motivation of the defendant(NCC) in declaring the land surplus, rezoning the land and selling it."

The GTA Greenbelt enjoys no greater claim to environmental sanctuary status than does its Ottawa cousin. While the legislation effectively curtails the abilities of private landowners to rezone for development purposes, the dictates of the Provincial Policy Statement on Land Use leave the door wide open for our provincial and municipal governments to do those very things, and they are doing it.

There is only one way to kick these unregistered real estate practitioners off the playing fields: the acquisition of effective property rights. We have to stop pretending that handing out pamphlets to MPs and MPPs has any hope of achieving that. If we have any desire to secure our future it is high time that we take a page from our competition's book and start forging alliances with organizations that will also benefit. It's definitely the time to get loud…if that doesn't work, then we'll just have to get angry.

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