The ninth annual Charles Sauriol Environmental Dinner last week was a surreal affair.Under the chandelier in the grand ballroom, ecologists, GTA politicians and an astounding array of developers tucked into a meal of roast beef and lemon pie and vowed to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine.
Indeed, the purpose of the evening, named for a legendary foe of urban sprawl, was to raise funds to conserve the watershed area, "parts of which are still threatened by logging, gravel pits and development," the media advisory divulged.
But were all these builders laughing and quaffing wine really as eager to protect ecologically sensitive turf as they looked?
A close look at the maps an advisory group headed by David Crombie is working from suggests some developers are on the verge of scoring a shocking sweetheart deal from the province.
The context for this is the Moraine Protection Act, under which about 65 per cent of all builders' holdings in the region were declared protected land. In return for giving up these tracts, the province agreed to give the owners land from the Seaton area in Pickering -- land that's also environmentally sensitive. Details of this swap are apparently still being ironed out.
But Mike Colle, the Liberal GTA cri-tic, has done some number-crunching. He claims developers are getting 2,784 hectares of Seaton land in return for giving up 887 hectares of moraine land. That means they may be receiving 3.14 acres of public/developable land for every acre of private land -- a three-for-one deal.
From what I can gather from talking to sources both inside and outside the government, it seems no appraisal has been done to determine the value of the Seaton lands. If it has, it's clear no one will admit it.
When I ask Crombie what he thinks of Colle's calculations, he tries to sound reassuring. The final deal, he says, "will be done value-for-value' and will be overseen by a Fairness Commissioner who will soon lay out the principles of the deal.
Similar promises are made by Debbe Crandall, director of Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) and a member of the land exchange panel. But none of this is comforting to enviros who claim the advisory committee set up by the province to oversee the land swap is stacked and includes reps from eco groups who, strangely, support housing on the moraine.
Of course, Chris Hodgson, minister of municipal affairs, will have the last word -- unless, of course, Premier Eves decides to get involved.
There are, after all, builders with a lot at stake in the swap, among them a prominent Conservative fundraiser who pumped close to $1 million into Tory coffers between 1995 and 2001. And held several fundraisers for the party.
Another has contributed more than $60,000 to the Tories and donated at least $10,000 to the Eves leadership campaign.
The first of these bought a large holding on the moraine, presumably with the intent of developing the property. This developer had an opportunity to back out of the deal when the Tories announced their freeze on building, yet went ahead with the purchase even though the potential looked slim.
Whether this player knew a three-for-one swap was in the government's plans -- and that he could capitalize on it -- is not clear. He declined to respond to several requests for comment.
The province, for its part, isn't doing much to allay critics' concerns.
It takes me a week of persistent calling to reach Hodgson press secretary Jim Miller. He's not offering any details on the swap, but denies there was any favouritism. In fact, Miller says, the Urban Development Institute (UDI), which represents Ontario developers, was very upset about the protection plan for the Moraine.
This version of events doesn't exactly jibe with UDI president Neil Rodgers, who tells me UDI had no problem with the plan. "The legislation established the rules of the game, and that was very helpful to people" in the development community, he says.
Back at the Charles Sauriol dinner, I attempt to interview another source with very close ties to one of the builders mentioned here. When I question him about the land swap, he asks, "Do you know how to swim with concrete shoes?"
I assume his warning was in jest.