what a difference a month makes. The Tories tried to cash in on environmentalist angst among the 905 set by pledging a moratorium on development in the Oak Ridges Moraine. Of course, the fact that the promise came as they were trying to hold onto their seat during a by-election in the area was a mere coincidence.Now comes word that Ontario's environmental commissioner is probing allegations the Tories sold off ecologically sensitive public lands in the area to private developers without conducting a full environmental review.
Save the Rouge and the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund (CEDF) have accused the Tories of violating the Environmental Assessment Act and failing to conduct a full review before they sold off hundreds of acres of public land in the Rouge Creek corridor. The affected area in east Markham, known as Box Grove, links the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario.
Depending on the commissioner's decision and the outcome, the environmentalists are prepared to take the matter to court in an attempt to reverse the sales. If the government is found to have neglected the law, it could face a fine of up to $10,000 and will have yet another black mark on its dismal environmental record.
The land in question was expropriated from farmers in 1975 by the Bill Davis government to form part of a greenbelt around Toronto. It's an oasis of prime agricultural land and a national heritage wildlife conservation area. Black walnut, which grows in only the richest soil, grows here. Several species of trout spawn here, and it's also home to red-shouldered hawks.
"The new emphasis is on gene flow, wildlife corridors and connectivity," says CEDF project manager David Donnelly. "So our whole point is that they're closing the door here on something. The Oak Ridges Moraine on its own is totally unsustainable."
CEDF and Save the Rouge are going after the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC), the government holding company responsible for the sale of public lands. They allege that the ORC, which was caught in a messy land-flip scandal with developers last year, has been playing fast and loose with the Environmental Assessment Act.
In 1998, the ORC sold several hundred acres for $6.95 million. ORC documents obtained by NOW show two sales in March 1998 to Boxgrove Hill Developments (which is the DeGasperis family, a major developer) for $3.4 million and Winter Garden Estates Inc. for $3.5 million.
The Town of Markham wants to develop 700 acres, encompassing 2,600 homes for 10,000 residents. "Nothing can happen until the secondary plan is approved," says Scott Heaslip of Markham's planning department.
The Environmental Assessment Act requires a maximum of four "phases" of investigation into public land prior to sale. Phase A is a checklist of environmental attributes. But any large assembly of environmental features automatically triggers a phase B review, which involves public consultations to determine if it should go to phase C.
But in the case of Box Grove, the process never got that far, and the environmentalists want to know why. Earlier this year they filed an application for investigation with the province's environmental commissioner.
In it they included what Donnelly calls their "smoking gun" -- a leaked copy of the Phase B report, completed by a William Wilson with ORC, who had to respond to this question:
"In your opinion could the intended use cause local, long-term changes large enough to threaten the ESA (environmentally significant area)?" Wilson answered, "Yes." The checklist goes on to stipulate: "if YES, hold further implementation until a Category C process is completed."
"The question is, where's your phase C?" says Donnelly. "If they don't have one, then they've broken the law."
Donnelly then filed what's called a "bump up request" with Environment Minister Dan Newman for a full review. But that request was denied.
The ORC had 60 days to respond to the allegations. But the agency can also ask for a time-out on the grounds that the accusers have provided insufficient information, which it did, according to Donnelly.
The ORC isn't talking. And Lise Guccione from the the environmental commissioner's office would not comment on the matter while it's being reviewed. Instead, she sends NOW to a relevant passage in the ECO's 1999-2000 annual report. It reads: "In its 1998 review of (Management Board Secretariat), the ECO found that, as a result of these new policy directions and the pressure to increase revenues, ORC had been selling environmentally significant lands without following the requirements of its Class Environmental Assessment under the Environmental Assessment Act." The report specifically mentions the Rouge River system.
Donnelly expects the ORC to come up with a litany of excuses and mitigating circumstances for the environmental commissioner. "If they come back with a response like that, we'll have to resort to private prosecution," he says, adding, "It's symbolic -- they're going to get a $2,000 fine or something.
"But conviction is a powerful weapon. You get a conviction against a government agency for not following environmental rules, the public doesn't like that."