Markham Councillor Carolina Moretti has diligently declared conflicts of interest and abstained from votes on any issue that came up involving the Fieldgate development group, where her son works.
But questions are now being raised about her decision not to declare a conflict during a recent series of votes that will decide if the town waters down a plan for a protected “food belt” and sprawls over more farmland — a move that could benefit Fieldgate.
Associated with several developers, including Silvio DeGasperis and Carlo Baldassarra, Fieldgate is one of several speculators on Markham farmland. It is also part of the North Markham Landowners Group, which wants the town to allow expansion northward onto more than half of the remaining 2,000 hectares of rural land within the municipal borders.
Several councillors and environmentalists, including David Suzuki and Environmental Defence, want the area to remain a permanent food belt. Some have been critical of Moretti’s failure to declare a conflict, which could have tipped the balance in favour of preservation.
“I have reviewed and I am aware of my obligations under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” said Moretti, who supports expansion. “Based on my review of the statute and on my lawyer’s advice, I have satisfied myself that I do not have an interest to disclose in this matter.”
Moretti later said in a one-sentence email Friday that what was different on past occasions when she did declare a conflict was that they involved “site specific applications.” She did not respond to further requests to elaborate, or say what work her son did for Fieldgate.
Those distinctions don’t wash with Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, who wrote to Moretti last month about the issue.
“A conflict is a conflict, whether the issue is site-specific or more widespread land use changes,” Smith said Friday. “Councillor Moretti should recuse herself.”
A second councillor, Gordon Landon, whose son has worked in the past for another Baldassarra company, Greenpark, explained that legal advice he had received said there was no conflict for him because the actual boundaries where expansion would occur had not been finalized.
Council will vote Tuesday on whether to change the designation of more land from agricultural to urban, something that would dramatically increase its value. (The final boundaries will be determined later.)
The battle over growth in Markham has been divisive, with more than a thousand people showing up at one meeting.
On April 27, councillors who wanted a freeze on expansion lost a 6-6 tie vote on a motion requesting York Region and the province to reduce Markham’s population allocation until the year 2031 by about 40,000 people.
That’s the same number originally expected to settle in the so-called White Belt lands — areas outside the town’s urbanized area and currently zoned agricultural.
A subsequent motion to freeze the city’s urban boundary even without a population reduction was defeated 7-5, when Councillor Logan Kanapathi switched sides.
The bigger debate in Markham, already on its way to becoming one of the densest communities in the GTA, is whether it can handle more outward growth. About 90,000 new residents are expected to find homes there through intensification and infill development by 2031.