The rich and powerful want to keep their pretty rural getaway for themselves. The suburban developer Benny Marotta had other plans. A bizarre tale of smear campaigns, hired thugs and small-town vengeance
Marolyn Morrison’s first meeting with Benny Marotta, the man who would become her nemesis, didn’t get off to a good start. It was spring 2004, shortly after Morrison was elected mayor of the leafy, sprawling town of Caledon. “Town,” in this case, is a bit of a misnomer, since Caledon encompasses many towns and hamlets scattered across its 700 square kilometres of mostly rural land. That morning, Morrison arrived at her office at the town hall with a sense of unease. She asked her chief planner to accompany her to the meeting so she wouldn’t be on her own.
Morrison is 67 and has short, brass-blonde hair and a folksy air that masks the hard determination of a woman who takes pleasure in ruling over her fiefdom. Marotta, who is 63, is a slick and self-assured Woodbridge developer. He strutted into Morrison’s office as though he owned it—and in a sense, he did. Marotta’s company, Solmar, was a major investor in Caledon. He was in the early stages of developing an ambitious 61-hectare business park in Bolton—a town in the eastern corner of Caledon, near Vaughan. He’d submitted the development proposal under the town’s previous mayor, and he was eager to ensure Morrison was on board. But he also wanted to tell her about another new project he had in the works. Marotta had his eye on a swath of farmland just west of the business park. He planned to acquire 850 hectares, and he was dreaming big.
“Look what I’m going to do for you—and for the town of Caledon,” Marotta said as he unrolled a blueprint and laid it across a table. It was for a massive development he’d called Humber Station Village. The project was like a whole new town—a mixed-use, mixed-income community, with up to 8,000 residences (detached homes and townhouses and low-rise condo buildings) and five million square feet of commercial space. It was a speculative play, but one he was quite confident about. The site consisted of 111 properties, many of them struggling or out-of-commission farms. Marotta’s plan was to gradually buy up the land and build Humber Station Village over 20 years, at a rate of about 300 homes a year.
“It was basically a subdivision,” Morrison told me. “I looked at the plans, and I thought, Excuse me?” She claims she told Marotta that the development looked like Brampton, only with a few more trees, and that as long as she was mayor, Caledon would never look like Brampton.
Marotta recalls the meeting a little differently. He says that Morrison didn’t voice any objection to the plan at the time, that she told him she thought the business park was a good thing for Bolton and thanked him for investing in the area. Based on that meeting, Marotta carried on with the development of his business park and with his plans for Humber Station Village.
Toronto’s growth has reached outward in all directions. One hundred thousand people are moving to the GTA every year, and they need to settle somewhere. Until recently, Caledon has largely remained a rural oasis, untouched by the creeping crescents of identical brick houses approaching from the south and east. But now the barbarians are at the gate, and Caledon’s most influential people—both politicians and wealthy residents—are manning the ramparts.
The province saw the urban-rural clashes coming and laid down some ground rules: the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Greenbelt Act and the Places to Grow Act all served to both protect rural land and contain urban sprawl. Places to Grow, the mother of all planning legislation, had scope and ambition but lacked teeth—the province routinely grants exemptions to municipalities that aren’t abiding by the law. All around the GTA, once-peaceful rural zones are turning into battlegrounds on which preservationists defend against dogged developers.
Morrison has spent her entire political career in Caledon. Before she became mayor she was a school board trustee and a regional councillor representing a ward in western Caledon for 15 years. She often describes Caledon as a “community of communities,” a special place that, in her words, should dare to be different. “Caledon will be planned by the people of Caledon,” she likes to say, “not by developers.” Marotta was exactly the kind of builder Morrison was determined to keep out, and her resolve prompted one of the fiercest, most bizarre development fights in the GTA.
In the rolling hills on the western side of Caledon, pheasants occasionally pop up on the roadsides, off of which gated, winding driveways lead to hidden estates. Caledon has been called the Hamptons of the north, and it’s a fitting comparison. Like the Hamptons, Caledon is not so much a town as an evocation of a fantasy—a mythological place that exists primarily in people’s imaginations and has never fully jelled as a single municipality. The Eatons have owned several recreational properties there, including Hawkridge Farm, George and Terrie Eaton’s 61-hectare estate, now on the market for $19 million. Thor and Nicky Eaton’s 197-hectare country home, South Down Farm, sits high on the Niagara Escarpment, with views all the way to Toronto. Listed for $18.5 million in 2010, it was recently purchased by Loblaw scion Galen Weston Jr. and his wife, Alexandra. The former Ontario premier David Peterson and his wife have a horse farm nearby—Shelley Peterson is an avid rider and trainer. Sue Grange, a renowned horse breeder and granddaughter of Roy Thomson, runs the prestigious Lothlorien Farm. A self-made Hamilton steel magnate named Greg Aziz, a relative newcomer to Caledon, turned a lot of heads when he built a colossal horse stable and country home—rumoured to be modelled after Le Petit Trianon at Versailles—across from South Down.
The epicentre of western Caledon is a cluster of horse farms called The Grange, home to many of the largest estates, as well as the Caledon Riding Club and its affiliate, the Eglinton and Caledon Hunt (a sign reminds drivers to “slow down now—horses, hounds and people crossing”). Residents of The Grange protested a proposal to pave the area’s roads, because pavement is hard on horses’ hooves and would detract from the rural feel of the place. So the gravel stayed. The Grange is a short drive from the exclusive Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Paintbrush golf courses (built by Chris Haney of Trivial Pursuit fame), the Caledon Ski Club and the Caledon Mountain Trout Club, the latter founded more than 100 years ago by bankers, railway barons and other captains of industry—names like Mackenzie and Seagram and Mellon. In its inaugural annual report in 1903, the directors stated that membership was open only to “gentlemen of high standing in Canada and the United States.”
The wealthiest residents of Caledon backed Marolyn Morrison’s campaign to keep the town small. She won’t disclose who exactly (“These people have a right to their privacy,” she says), but she clearly relishes her relationship with them. Several people contacted her after they heard about Marotta’s proposal. “They said, ‘Marolyn, we support you 100 per cent,’” she recalls. “Anything you need, you let us know. There is no way some fellow from Woodbridge is going to walk into Caledon and tell us what to do.” One of them, she adds, even told her to “put the gate up, put the wall up, don’t let anyone in.”
Morrison’s allies are a formidable bunch who, after a decade-long battle, recently helped defeat a proposal for an open pit quarry not far from their country homes. Many of them belong to a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, which raised $2 million for the cause. Their most popular fundraiser was their annual, treasure-filled Great Big Garage Sale. When the retired businessman and long-time Caledon resident Trevor Eyton sold his Florida home, he shipped its contents north and sold them at the big sale. “All his beautiful rattan furniture!” says Morrison.
Morrison and her husband, John, a high school co-op teacher, live in Inglewood, one of Caledon’s picturesque western hamlets, only a few kilometres from The Grange. The Morrisons have resided in Caledon for 34 years. They own a one-hectare property surrounded by apple orchards and farm fields.
The mayor went on a campaign to rally opposition to Marotta’s plans. She used her weekly column in the Caledon Citizen to warn about pushy developers. She talked about Humber Station Village as though 21,000 people were about to flood into Caledon like a tsunami, neglecting to mention that it was to be built out over two decades. She sent out email blasts imploring residents to think about who should plan Caledon—the people, or developers?
At the same time, Morrison and her council embarked on a plan to restrict development. Their decisions would prove controversial, costly and infuriating to Benny Marotta. In April 2006, council quietly passed a motion that would effectively freeze the population of Bolton until 2021—virtually no new residential development for 15 years.
Marotta was stunned when he read about the decision in a local paper. He went to Morrison’s office to meet with her and her planner. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said to them. “I’ve just paved 61 hectares of industrial land for the business park. Who’s going to buy or move into buildings in an area where there’s no growth?” Morrison was unmoved. She told him she and her council were simply following the recommendations of the town’s planning staff.
Marotta had just sunk nearly $50 million into a moribund town. He went back to his office and asked his lawyers to send Morrison a letter. In it, he said Caledon’s council and planning staff had misled Solmar about Bolton’s future; they’d encouraged the company to pursue its developments there. If Solmar was unable to carry out its plans, the company reserved the right to take legal action.
Benny Marotta literally built his fortune with his own hands. He was born in 1951 in a small town just outside of Naples, the youngest of eight children. He came to Toronto in 1970 at the age of 19 to visit his brother, who lived at St. Clair and Dufferin, found work in construction and began training as a bricklayer. In 1971, he met an elementary school teacher named Luisa, fell in love and decided to stay. They were married two years later.
By age 25, Marotta had branched out on his own, working as a contractor by day and renovating his home on the weekends. He bought old houses in Willowdale and fixed them up for resale. This led to more houses, demolitions and rebuilds, then lots where he would build from scratch. He started Solmar—a portmanteau of solo and Marotta—in 1988, and since then the company has built dozens of single-family-home, condo and commercial developments across southern Ontario, from Port Hope in the east to Beamsville in the west and as far north as Barrie. It’s a family business (his son-in-law, Giuseppe Paolicelli, is manager; his nephew, Maurizio Rogato, chief planner), and most of his employees have been with him for 20 years. Marotta lives in a 6,000-square-foot palladium-style bungalow in an upscale Woodbridge neighbourhood backing onto the National Golf Club of Canada. He also owns a weekend home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he and his two daughters, aged 38 and 39, run a winery called Two Sisters. And he’s in the process of developing two residential communities and two commercial properties nearby, projects that have been largely welcomed by the local politicians, whom he calls “lovely, reasonable people.”
Marotta had reason to believe his plans for Bolton would succeed. Unlike the smaller hamlets in western Caledon—largely the domain of wealthy weekenders—Bolton was a former village that, after a period of rapid expansion in the ’90s, had grown into a sizable town. Home to roughly 26,000 people, it was stuck at the midway point between bedroom community (most residents commuted to other points in the GTA) and self-sustaining town where people could both live and work. It needed well-paying jobs and mixed housing in order to grow and intensify—precisely what the province had in mind when it passed its Places to Grow Act.
Marotta figured Morrison was just one vote alongside eight councillors, so he took his chances and submitted his Humber Station Village proposal to the Caledon planning department in September 2007. The town took his fees, deemed his application complete and then sat on it. A couple of months later, Caledon council met to vote on an amendment to the Bolton growth freeze that would pave the way for Humber Station Village. Before the meeting, it appeared that many of the councillors were in support of the project and the prospect of increased revenue for the town.
Morrison, who had recently undergone a double knee replacement and had been laid up for the better part of six weeks, arrived at the meeting determined to get her way. “I don’t think Solmar believed I’d show up,” she says. “But I walked in with my two canes, sat down and chaired the meeting.” By the time council voted, several members had changed their minds about Humber Station; now only two—those representing Bolton—were in favour, and the amendment was rejected. Morrison had ensured Marotta’s Humber Station Village would never see the light of day.
And that’s when things got a little crazy.
Marotta isn’t the type of guy to walk away from an investment. Instead, he launched a pro-growth campaign to try to sway public opinion. He had invested in a friend’s publishing company in Vaughan, which put out a weekly newspaper called Vaughan Perspectives. By January 2008, it had been renamed Caledon Perspectives, and it began appearing in newspaper boxes throughout Bolton. The paper took a decidedly anti-Morrison stance in its editorials. One cover featured a caricature of the mayor with a crown and staff, and a headline suggesting she thought she was the queen. Morrison showed it to her Peel Region colleague Hazel McCallion. “I said to Hazel, ‘Look, I’ve finally made it!’” she recalls.
Marotta wasn’t the only one miffed by Morrison’s anti-growth agenda: the province had begun to notice Caledon’s unorthodox approach to planning. That spring, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs sent the first of several letters to Peel Region demanding the town begin following provincial policy.
Morrison says it was around this time that she first began to suspect she was being followed. While driving at night from event to event in her yellow T-Bird, she’d spot a dark sedan, either a Mercedes or an Audi, trailing behind her. “So I’d go home at night, and I’d say to my husband, ‘You know, somebody’s following me.’ And he’d say, ‘You’re kidding,’ and I’d say ‘Noooo.’ ” She phoned the police, who suggested she call 911 the next time she was being pursued, but she says she didn’t want to use up police resources. One night, she left a meeting and noticed the car behind her, so she drove into a subdivision and circled through the streets to see if it followed her back out. Sure enough, it did. This went on for about five months, Morrison says, always at night. “It was just intimidation tactics,” she says. “It was like watching a poorer version of The Sopranos.”
On the morning of May 23, 2008, Morrison’s husband, John, left their house in Inglewood to drive to Orangeville where he taught. As he waited to turn off his street and onto the highway, he saw a black Cadillac Escalade parked on the shoulder. It had a personalized licence plate that read PAPA PUMP. That’s strange, he thought. He was pretty sure he’d seen the vehicle before. After arriving at the school and parking his car in the lot, he noticed the Escalade sitting on an adjacent side street. Suddenly, two men in ball caps and sunglasses came running toward him. They stood on either side of him and announced that they wanted to talk to him about his wife. They claimed to have pictures of her with other men. “Oh really?” Morrison said. “Show me the pictures.”
The response surprised them; they had expected him to get mad. When he didn’t, one of them said, “Well, we want to develop some property and your wife’s holding things up. We want her to change her vote and get the rest of the council onside.” John asked if that was a threat. “Oh no,” the man said. “This is a friendly visit. If it were a threat, something would’ve happened by now.” At that moment, another teacher walked by and the two men took off. John called the OPP and reported the incident.
Eleven days later, he returned home after school to let the family dog out before driving to Toronto for a course he was taking. It was about 4:30 when he pulled into his circular driveway. He got out of his car, and as he headed for the back door of the house he heard the sound of footsteps running behind him. Just as he was turning around to see who it was, he was punched in the face, across his cheek and nose (police suspect the assailant used a roll of quarters or brass knuckles), and fell to the ground on one knee. His assailant turned and ran.
First he called 911, then he phoned his wife, who was in a meeting in her office at town hall. “Marolyn! Marolyn! I’ve been attacked!” he said. “I think my nose is broken.” Marolyn excused herself and rushed home. En route, she called the chief of police and told him what had happened. “I hope you’re happy,” she said. “Now John’s been assaulted. I know there wasn’t much you could do before, but I knew something was going to happen. I knew it, I knew it!” She raced home to find her neighbourhood jammed with police cars and her husband’s face swollen and bloodied.
John had a vivid memory of one of the men who’d threatened him in the school parking lot, and identified him in a police photo lineup. The cops checked the man out. His name was Vladimir Vranic. He was a 28-year-old Woodbridge resident who drove a black Cadillac Escalade with PAPA PUMP vanity plates and had a previous assault charge on his record. Vranic was arrested, and charged with threatening and extortion.
Both Marolyn and John testified at the preliminary hearing in Orangeville, but before the case went to trial, Vranic’s lawyer struck a deal with the Crown. Vranic pleaded guilty to threatening, and the extortion charge—which would have carried a jail term—was dropped. He was sentenced to three months of house arrest and a year’s probation. No one was ever charged in the assault.
Morrison is angry that the people who put Vranic up to it were never caught, and that her family was targeted in the first place. “Bullies think they should be able to do anything they want, anywhere they want,” she says. “Well, not with me, I’m sorry.”
When news of the assault got out, Benny Marotta knew people would think he was involved. “The first thing she said to the media was that it was development related,” he says. He hired the prominent Toronto libel lawyer Julian Porter and launched a defamation suit, claiming Morrison was telling people he was behind the assault. After the examinations for discovery, however, Marotta decided to settle out of court. The terms of the settlement remain confidential.
Marotta maintains that the attacks weren’t orchestrated by him, and that he’s not the only person who’s been hurt by Morrison’s planning decisions. For starters, dozens of small businesses in Bolton had gone bankrupt. Any of the 111 different landowners in the area of Bolton that Solmar wanted to develop could have been behind the attacks.
Frustrated by the town’s refusal to review his proposal, he sent yet another threatening letter from his in-house counsel. This one stated that unless Morrison and the Town came through on certain promises made to Solmar, the company would sue for $500 million. His lawyer then sent a follow-up letter suggesting they bring in a provincial facilitator to try to resolve the dispute. Although no lawsuit had officially been filed, Morrison called an emergency council meeting and invited the public—an unusual move since litigation matters are usually discussed in camera. On July 2, 2008, a capacity crowd showed up at the town hall to hear council discuss the threat. One witness described it as “a rallying cry.”
Marotta tried to discredit Morrison. After hearing rumours that the mayor had taken kickbacks from developers, he met with a Canada Revenue Agency supervisor named Jeffrey Granger, who ran a side business providing tax-consulting services to Solmar and other companies in the construction industry. According to an agreed statement of facts between Granger and Crown prosecutors, Marotta asked Granger to find out whether there was any truth to the rumours about Morrison. Granger conducted an audit of Morrison and claimed to have uncovered evidence of two cheques Morrison had supposedly received from Mattamy Homes and one of its subsidiaries, Stelumar.
Sam Lostracco, a Toronto police constable and an old friend of Marotta’s, took the evidence to an OPP detective named Mark Pritchard. After a four-month investigation, Pritchard concluded the allegations were baseless. “The information provided appears to be inaccurate,” he wrote in his report. “Banking information reveals accounts did not exist at the time of the allegations, no unusual activity and no companies registered to Marolyn Morrison.” He found the source information to be “either completely false, or inaccurate to the point of being impossible to verify.”
Pritchard visited Morrison at her home in July to tell her about his findings. She was floored. “I’ve only had one speeding ticket in my whole life,” she said. She told him she believed she was being targeted due to concerns about development in Bolton. “You need to be bloomin’ well looking into who’s doing this to me and why,” she said. In fact, she already knew about the kickback rumours and had her suspicions about who was spreading them: Annette Groves, a Bolton councillor who would become Morrison’s main opponent in the 2010 municipal election. Morrison was convinced that Groves and her husband were being paid by Marotta—a claim both Marotta and Groves vehemently deny, and for which Morrison has no evidence.
The OPP launched a new investigation to try to find the source of the Morrison rumours—which led them back to Granger. In February 2010, Granger was suspended from the CRA, and in November, he was arrested and charged with fraud, breach of trust by a public officer and accepting secret commissions. Three years later, he pleaded guilty in a Newmarket court and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Police determined that Granger had raked in $1.24 million for his fraudulent consulting services, $525,000 of which had come from Solmar. Marotta says this money had been paid to Granger for what he believed had been legitimate services. When it came to Morrison, he claims he was merely trying to ascertain whether the rumours he’d heard were true. The minute Granger told him he had proof that Morrison had taken money from developers—proof it now appears Granger had fabricated—he did what any citizen would do and turned the information over to the police.
Morrison’s opinion of Marotta wasn’t improved by the CRA incident. The 2010 municipal election was a nasty one, in which Morrison and her campaign team tried to persuade voters that a vote for Annette Groves was a vote for Marotta. There was much mud-slinging on both sides, including a false rumour that Groves was planning to open a mosque in Bolton. (Groves, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would only say she has no interest in talking about Marotta or Morrison, whose petty fighting she feels has crippled Caledon for almost a decade.) In the end, Morrison won by 4,000 votes.
Naturally, the mayor considered the win an endorsement of her dictum that only Caledon would plan Caledon—although by now, she had come to equate Caledon with herself.
Just before the election, the town had filed an official plan amendment that would rezone a 250-hectare parcel of land (which included part of Marotta’s land) for employment use only. A few months later, Marotta—along with several other landowners—appealed to the OMB. It was around this time that Canadian Tire started negotiating with the Town of Caledon about building a new, 1.5-million-square-foot distribution centre in Bolton. The land they’d chosen was directly across the road from Marotta’s proposed Humber Station Village. Morrison eagerly embraced the Canadian Tire plan, but she couldn’t approve it while Caledon’s official plan was before the OMB. So she began lobbying Queen’s Park.
It’s a sad fact of urban planning that the process is highly susceptible to political interference. Rules are easily bent to suit a particular agenda, and executing the agenda is often a simple matter of knowing the right people to make it happen. The rules were bent in Morrison’s favour on July 18, 2013, when then-minister Linda Jeffrey—a former Peel Region colleague of Morrison’s who is now running for mayor of Brampton—approved a special zoning order converting the land in Bolton for employment use. The order cleared the way for Canadian Tire. The province, which had admonished Caledon for not conforming to planning policies but otherwise stood idly by while the town engaged in a 10-year battle with Marotta, was finally throwing its weight around.
A week after the zoning order was issued, Richard Whitehead, Caledon’s longest-serving councillor (he was first elected 21 years ago), was asked by a local reporter how a town the size of Caledon managed to resolve controversial development issues with such speed. “We are a very affluent area with a lot of very influential people living or doing business here,” he said. “We have a lot of voices in the corridors of power.”
Benny Marotta says he was warned about Caledon. Back in 2001 or 2002, he got a call from his old friend and fellow developer Freddy DeGasperis, who’d heard about Marotta’s industrial park. “He said, ‘Benny, don’t do it. You’re crazy,’ ” Marotta recalls. “He told me I should sell the land and run—not walk—away, ’cause the politicians would use me for their anti-development agenda. I should’ve listened.”
Marotta has been gradually selling his landholdings in Caledon, offloading his last building in the struggling business park more than 10 years after he started construction. He says that while he managed to recoup his original $50 million business park investment, he lost an incalculable amount of money as a result of sitting on a stalled residential project for so many years. He still owns 162 undeveloped hectares.
In January, Morrison announced she wouldn’t be running for re-election this fall. She and her husband are retiring, but she says she’s concerned about what will happen to Caledon once she’s gone. “I worry that the next mayor won’t be strong enough and will start making deals,” she says, “and once you start making deals, you look like Brampton.” She has decided to write a book about her experiences as mayor of Caledon and her battle against big development. The working title: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Not Me!