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Large crowd, including former premier, voice concerns over Greenbelt development

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Well over 100 people, including a former premier, turned out Tuesday night to voice their concerns over the ongoing Greenbelt controversy plaguing the Ford government.

On Tuesday, the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition hosted a forum, bringing together experts from the field with citizens from across the county, all concerned over the provincial government's plans to open up portions of the Greenbelt for housing development.

"In a perfect world, the MPPs would be hosting this," said Margaret Prophet, the executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. "They would be saying, 'Hey, we kind of screwed up; let's talk about it, let me hear what you have to say…They are not doing that, so we're like, this is the best way that we can do it to give people the voice that they deserve in a democracy."

The event featured panellists, including former Toronto Mayor and Greenbelt Council Chair David Crombie, former Beausoleil First Nations Chief Jeff Monague, Tim Gray of Environmental Defence and Franz Hartmann of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario.

Once all panellists had an opportunity to address the crowd, which nearly filled Grace United Church, attendees were given a chance to raise their concerns or raise questions to the panellists, who all have some sort of environmental background.

"The ultimate accountability lies with the premier," said Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, which works on various environmental advocacy concerns, including urban development. "He needs to take responsibility, he needs to reverse the attacks on the greenbelt, he needs to do something truly meaningful about affordable housing, and he needs to listen to the Ontario public."

Gray points out that the Greenbelt was established over multiple generations and various political parties, saying the land is critical to the environment.

"It protects our future, it protects our water supply, it protects our air, it helps mitigate climate change, but equally important, it tells us where we should build," Gray said to CTV News. "It tells us we should build in our cities; we should build in a more compact way; we should build so people can get to work and to school."

Another panellist at Tuesday's event was David Crombie. The former Toronto mayor led a report in 2015 that instead called for additional lands to be added to the Greenbelt. Crombie says the province's argument that the lands are needed to match an unprecedented need for housing is unfounded.

"It's a total, total fiction," Crombie tells CTV News.

Crombie says that the focus should be on ensuring the Greenbelt meets the people's needs, not the government's. He was appointed to lead that 2015 Greenbelt report by former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who was in attendance to support those outraged by the controversy.

"The fact that in an area that has supported the Conservatives for many, many years, we've got people coming out to say this is wrong," said Wynne. "I think it's really important, and the government needs to pay attention."

The controversy has been a lingering issue for the Ford government. Earlier this month, former Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clarke resigned following two bombshell reports into the scandal, one from the integrity commissioner and another from the ethics commissioner.

MPP Paul Calandra has been appointed Clarke's replacement and has said in recent days the province will be reviewing all Greenbelt land, a process that could see more land removed.

On Wednesday, Minister Calandra's office responded in a statement, reiterating the government's commitment to build 1.5 million homes by 2031.

"We recognize that there are areas for improvement as we move forward and continue our work to respond to Ontario's housing crisis in a fair and transparent way. Even the previous government who created the Greenbelt understood it might be necessary to adjust its boundaries to accommodate growth."

It added, "In the coming months, we will be launching this mandated review ahead of schedule, and it will be informed by recommendations put forward by the Auditor General. It will also include consultations with municipalities, Indigenous leaders, and everyday Ontarians. As per the existing legislation, it will also require that the overall size of the Greenbelt shall not decrease."

The statement noted the government would require landowners and home builders to "ensure the government's criteria regarding these lands are met, such as our requirement that landowners must provide substantial community benefits to the public. Moreover, our expectation is that at a very minimum 10 per cent of these homes be affordable."

While the issue shows no signs of slowing down, Crombie argues the Ford government can bring a solution in relatively short order and predicts that they will.

"I think everybody's mother taught them that it's never too late to do the right thing, and if the government could do that, they could do it easily," said Crombie. "All they need to do is put the land back that they said they wanted to take out."

The government's statement concluded by adding that "if these expectations are not met, the lands will be returned to the Greenbelt."

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