2nd developer goes to court to avoid questions from Ontario auditor general in Greenbelt probe


A second prominent Toronto-area developer who owns land that was removed from southern Ontario's protected Greenbelt last year is going to court to avoid answering questions from the province's auditor general.

Michael Rice, CEO of Rice Group, filed a notice of application with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on July 5 seeking to block or delay a summons from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk that he be interviewed and provide records related to land he owns in the area that is now cleared for development.

Lysyk has been looking at the provincial government's removal of environmental protections from more than 2,995 hectares of land — while adding other land elsewhere — so that 50,000 homes can be built. 

The Greenbelt was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from development and covers some 810,000 hectares area of farmland, forest and wetland from Niagara Falls to Peterborough. 

In the court filing that was first reported by The Toronto Star, Rice argues the summons oversteps the auditor general's authority to scrutinize provincial government finances.

"The auditor general's role is not to investigate, audit, and/or examine private citizens under oath, or go on fishing expeditions with respect to their private corporate affairs," the filing says.

Rice's filing came just a week after another developer who benefited from the Greenbelt decision — Silvio De Gasperis — made a similar application. De Gasperis is president of the Vaughan, Ont.-based Tacc Group of companies.

Bought property in September

Lysyk's office agreed in January to conduct "certain audit work" related to the so-called Greenbelt land swap in response to a joint call from all three opposition parties.

Opposition politicians and other critics have raised concerns about what developers might have known in advance of the government announcing the policy. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have denied tipping off developers.

As CBC Toronto first reported, property ownership and corporate records showed several developers bought land in recent years that was either wholly or partly in the Greenbelt — meaning they were fully or partially off limits to development at the time of purchase.

A company controlled by Rice paid $80 million for five parcels of land in the Township of King, located about 50 kilometres north of Toronto, on Sept. 15 last year — less than two months before the Ford government announced sections of that land, which were protected, would be opened for housing and other development. 

At the time, the local council said Rice was willing to provide some of the land for an expansion of a nearby hospital at a "nominal fee."