By Mark Brooks
“When is a park not a park?” When it is leased out at fire sale rates to a chosen few corporations and individuals. This is a common problem and source of corruption with government-owned land in some parts of the world, but could it happen in Canada? A Government MP may be caught up in just such a scheme that could see the pandemic and the new Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP) used as cover to stick Parks Canada with a big bill for nothing in return. A new Freedom of Information request shows that Parks Canada has been cut out of the loop, until now. Here is what is going on.
Jennifer O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Pickering-Uxbridge, is sponsoring a new petition in the Canadian Parliament. The Petition would see the remaining federal land set aside for a new airport “added” to RNUP, and extend for decades the lease of those lands by a chosen few corporations and individuals. This simple transfer between government departments would trigger the payment of a $70+ million-dollar levy to the Seaton housing developers.
As a condition of development of the Seaton community, the Region and the developers entered into an agreement whereby these developers would oversize water and sewer systems in the subdivisions just south of the airport, in anticipation by the region of the need to support the new airport. With the building of Seaton underway, and an airport being planned, these infrastructure investments are being made.
The Seaton developers are to be reimbursed by the developers of the Pickering airport lands. So, the winning bid to develop the airport is on the hook to repay this levy once the airport is built. Should an airport not be built, the Seaton developers still need to be paid by whoever controls the land. The airport has not been cancelled and its opening in 2029 as a utility airport is eagerly anticipated by many in the business and aviation community.
So why would Parks Canada allow itself to be used to block the airport by accepting the sort of transfer proposed by the MP, and the hidden multi-million-dollar bill? It turns out that until recently they may not have even been aware of the petition. A new Freedom of Information request (FOI) has uncovered an unbelievable lack of communications between Parks Canada and the local MP, Jennifer O’Connell. It turns out that the MP pushing the new plan to “transfer” land to Parks Canada, and then to establish long-term leases of those lands, has not even bothered to consult with, or receive the advice from, the federal department expected to make it happen. The MP appears to be “self-advising” on the issues.
The MP has presented herself as a “green” champion to voters. Yet on this issue, the FOI shows no correspondence between her and Parks Canada since she was first elected in 2015. This is bad enough but slipped into this seemingly green proposal is a condition of extending the current land leases by decades, possibly forever. A great plan for the anointed few commercial farms, businesses and individuals who now lease almost all the land. But brutal for Parks Canada who would then have the expense of managing the land. Even worse if it would end up with an $70-million-dollar bill from housing developers that have already paid for oversizing water and sewer lines into the airport lands. Transferring a billion-dollar land asset between departments would no doubt have many other hidden costs as well.
Where would Parks Canada find $70 million to enable this land transfer? Not from the tiny $2 million a year in annual lease income that they would be forced to lock in on land worth billions commercially. Without inflation adjustments, this would not even cover the expected future management costs. Would Parks Canada have to sell part of this land to cover the costs of the transfer? This would place land from the RNUP or the Pickering Lands into the hand of housing developers within several years. At the same time, it would not add any new land to the RNUP that is not already leased out for non-park uses.
Should the land transfer happen and Parks Canada reject paying the bill, then who gets stuck with it? The tax payers of Pickering? That would be almost $1000 for every man woman and child in Pickering.
Perhaps it is time for the MP to stop listening to the lobbyists and land developers who donated thousands to her campaign and instead start talking to Parks Canada. Better yet, it is time for the MP to stop “self-advising” on who to gift tax-payer assets to and to accept the advice, from experts, that we will need a new airport.
The full economic development of the retained Pickering Airport lands, as an airport and as a major new employment zone, is in the best interests of the City of Pickering, the Region of Durham and the greater Toronto region.
It is time for her to listen to the experts and ultimately to explain her actions to Parliament. It is time for the MP to do the right thing for the majority of the region’s residents and voters.