It reads like a B-movie script for a government scandal. A billion dollars in government land leased out to a select few, mostly unknown, insiders well below market rates. Brave local mayors and town councils harassed at every turn as they fight to get the attention of a distant uncaring federal government. The local citizen volunteers getting to the bottom of it all with the time-honored freedom of the press spotlight. Except it’s not a Hollywood movie, it is happening right now in Canada’s most densely populated region, Toronto.
For years, cheap government land leases in the eastern Toronto region have been an open secret in the aviation community, government and political circles. The land was expropriated and set aside in the 1970s for a new airport and is managed by Transport Canada. After expropriation a number of the original landowners continued to lease their land back from the government with one year leases. As a concession to the short lease terms the rates where set well below market value.
Over the years the original landowners have moved on and only a few remain. But new lease holders have snapped up the land as it has become free. These newcomers include the chair and vice chair of a local lobby group called Land Over Landings. This group is well known for its virtue signalling on food security and the environment to garner public donations. It may also include several former and current aviation professionals, who are using their credentials to cast doubt on the case for developing a new airport.
Leased out for as little as $120 an acre per year, the 9000 acres of farmland, commercial and residential lots are in Pickering, only a short drive from downtown Toronto. This ideal location and cheap lease rates have created a waiting list of people and corporations who want in on the deal. Unfortunately, as much as they would like to, our valiant public servants are not allowed to say who is leasing the land or who is on the waiting list. They also can not move forward with the long-planned development without federal cabinet level approval.
A recent independent consultant report from KPMG suggests that the time has come to begin the development of this billion-dollar land reserve. In response, some current leaseholders are stepping up a campaign to extend the land leases. Using misinformation and obfuscation, seasoned with a healthy dollop of self-appointed moral superiority, they are both attacking and lobbying our elected officials to extend their cheap leases.
Some are even using the pandemic as an excuse to change the lease terms from 1-year cancellation clause to a 20-year lease with no cancellation. This would greatly increase the value of the leases and enable efficient subleasing. In Toronto’s hot real estate market, it could make the leaseholders millionaires overnight.
The problem is no one knows who most of the leaseholders are.
What if these chosen few are current or former politicians, staffers or family members or even civil servants from Transport Canada itself? Who are the lobbyists?
Though they cloak their messages in themes of food security, climate change and renewal of farming on these lands, the real focus is more likely themselves. Protecting “their” current lease, “their” self-interest, and extending “their” perceived continued and exclusive entitlement to the use of the federal Pickering lands.
Those possibilities are distorting the integrity of the decision process and public debate over the future of a billion-dollar public asset. It is undermining the ability of elected officials to govern. In the age of misinformation and misdirection for profit, transparency is key to fighting corruption.
It is time to publish the list of current and want-to-be leaseholders. It is time to remove the secrecy and incentives being given to these leaseholders to oppose the proper utilization and development of the Pickering lands.
It is anticipated that airport will be developed in stages enabling the renewal of some of the leases. But there is no reason to renew these leases at below market rates or for current leaseholders to have right of first refusal regarding lease extensions. Instead, why not hold an open and public lottery for expired or expiring leases? Why should a golf course or a hang gliding school have priority over a farm or a summer camp?
If transparency is not possible, then to protect the integrity of our government and its institutions from corruption, the leases should be canceled outright today.
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