A prominent developer and key figure in the Ford government’s controversial Greenbelt land swap bought property in Hamilton a month before Ontario announced plans to open protected farmland to residential development.
According to property records, the purchase closed on October 6, 2022, three weeks after an anonymous developer requested that the province remove the land and other parcels from the Green Belt, as described in a recent report from the auditor general.
Greater Toronto developer Silvio De Gasperis, principal of Tacc Developments, along with Steven Weisz of Paradise Developments and Jack Eisenberger of Fieldgate Homes, purchased more than 12 acres at 411 Book Rd. W. for $2.8 million dollars through his corporation, Book Shaver Developments Limited, CBC Hamilton found through corporate and property records.
With the Hamilton purchase, De Gasperis will benefit from four of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt, owning multiple properties in Pickering, Richmond Hill and Vaughan, as CBC Toronto previously reported. Two of those sites are the largest of the 15. Eisenberger has also invested in the Richmond Hill and Vaughan developments, and has been buying other properties on Book Road in recent years.
Both developers build detached homes and townhomes throughout the Toronto area.
When they purchased 411 Book Rd. W. property in Hamilton, it was in the midst of more than 728 acres of protected Green Belt land, known as Book Road land, where prime farmland intertwines with wetlands and forests.
Less than a month later, on November 3, the province informed property owners and developers that it was proposing to remove the land from Book Road and 14 other Green Belt sites, significantly increasing the value of the land. The province informed the public a day later.
Count. Craig Cassar, who represents the area, said the developers’ purchase of 411 Book Rd. W. points to the idea that the developers knew in advance of the Ontario government’s plans.
“It’s hard to conclude anything other than that they were working with the provincial government in a very non-transparent way,” Cassar said.
Date of sale “pure coincidence”: office of the developer
Tacc Developments executive assistant Sandra Galassi said it is “pure coincidence” that the October 6 closing date fell between the anonymous developer’s request and the time the land was removed.
She said the property was listed for sale earlier that summer and a Tacc project manager made the owner an offer.
Asked if the company knew the Greenbelt land would be available for development, Galassi did not answer directly.
“Tacc is a passive investor in many land deals throughout the GTA and beyond,” he said.
Developers have purchased other parts of the Book Road land in recent years, even though it became part of the Greenbelt in 2016.
Ahead of the June 2022 provincial election, Eisenberger, De Gasperis and their family members donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Progressive Conservative Party and its candidates, according to donor reports published in Elections Ontario.
Around that time, in May 2022, De Gasperis, along with Weisz, invested in another property on Book Road. That property was originally purchased by Eisenberger in 2017. Neither Eisenberger nor Weisz responded to the CBC’s requests for comment.
Eisenberger recently purchased two other properties on Book Road, one last February and one in April, after the province removed them from the Greenbelt.
While the Book Road site is the largest site of recent Green Belt sites to be developed in the Hamilton region, there are four other sites in the area that have also been removed at Mount Hope and Grimsby.
The province has faced difficult questions and backlash since Housing Minister Steve Clark and Prime Minister Doug Ford announced the sites would be removed from the Green Belt.
CBC Toronto and other news outlets reported that for years, De Gasperis and his family have owned dozens of properties within Pickering’s Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve. Those 1,740 hectares constitute the largest site removed from the Green Belt. The Book Road land is the second largest site.
The De Gasperis family also owns land at Richmond Hill and Vaughanwho was also removed from the Green Belt last year.
AG says land value could increase by $8 billion
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk investigated some aspects of the Green Belt land swap and concluded in a damning report this month that the promoters influenced how the province selected sites.
“The process was biased in favor of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff,” Lysysk told reporters.
As a result of the opening of this residential lot, developers could see an increase of $8 billion in value, Lysyk found.
Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who resigned this week, led the effort, according to his report.
At an industry event in September 2022, he received packages from two anonymous prominent developers, the auditor general discovered. They requested that the land in Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve, to be developed by Tacc, and in King Township be removed for development by another company, which bought the land the day after the industry event.
Shortly thereafter, one of those two developers requested that Book Road Lands be removed from the Green Belt, along with two other sites owned by Tacc and companies linked to the De Gasperis family, according to the auditor’s report.
A ‘terrible use of land’, says councilor
Following the release of the report, Ford told reporters that he only learned of the proposed Green Belt changes the day before they went to Cabinet for approval, while Clark said he found out the week before.
While Ford acknowledged that the province could have had a better process for selecting the sites, he said some of the Green Belt land needs to be opened up for development to meet its goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031, a claim which others, including the City of Hamilton, claim. councilors and planning staff have denied it.
The province has conditions that developers must meet, including building community infrastructure and services, supportive housing and long-term care residences, as part of their developments, Ford said. They also have to start building houses by 2025.
If those conditions are not met, the land would be returned to the Green Belt, he said.
At this time, the Ontario Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator is reviewing all 15 sites, including those in Hamilton.
The Hamilton city council has strongly opposed the Green Belt land swap and voted unanimously on August 18 to demand that the province abandon its plans.
Cassar said the Book Road sites are at “ground zero” in terms of service infrastructure and will likely take years to prepare for subdivisions.
Part of the site is also close to the Hamilton International Airport and the city has restricted accommodation in this area due to noise. The auditor general found that the province was unaware of this restriction when it removed it from the Green Belt.
“It’s a terrible use of the land for housing, which is going to be low-density housing for sure,” Cassar said of the Book Road lot.
“That’s not good for taxpayers, it’s not good for the people who would buy there, and most of all it’s not going to help with affordable housing, which we desperately need.”