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Profile of Silvio DeGasperis



`If you push me around, I'll push back'
Sep. 28, 2006. 01:00 AM

At "almost" 5 ft., 8 in., Vaughan developer Silvio DeGasperis is not a large man. But the fast-talking, well-dressed Italian immigrant casts a large shadow in Greater Toronto.

Surveying more than two dozen subdivisions and scores of underground sewer and water projects from a helicopter, DeGasperis' pride is palpable. So is his determination.

"I'm a relatively small player," he says. "But if you push me around, I'll push back."

Pushing back is a polite way of characterizing the war he's been waging against the province since the fall of 2004, when Dalton McGuinty's Liberals slapped the greenbelt on 400 hectares of Pickering farmland DeGasperis wants to turn into more subdivisions.

DeGasperis, who maintains the greenbelt is based on political science and not on environmental science or economics, estimates he's spent $5 million in the battle, including two lawsuits, the second of which goes to Divisional Court this fall.

Dozens of developers have been stung since the greenbelt became law in February 2005. But industry consensus has been to lie low. Governments change. The market churns. Policies evolve.

But not DeGasperis. He wants to fight. "McGuinty has already hurt me," he says above the whump, whump, whump of the helicopter as it hovers above rows of rooftops surrounded by farmers' fields. "Now I'm going to hurt him."

With the matter before the courts, the premier is reluctant to comment. But there's no sign McGuinty is deterred.

"Some people complain that we were saving too much greenspace," he said recently during the dedication of a Markham park in memory of Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter. "But I have every confidence that 100 years from now our great-grandchildren won't complain ... I think they'll be grateful for every single square centimetre of greenspace we were able to save in perpetuity."


DeGasperis charged into the spotlight 18 months ago when ink on the greenbelt law was barely dry. He leaked a letter detailing an intimate $10,000-a-plate dinner with McGuinty the previous May with 14 other developers at the home of Finance Minister Greg Sorbara's brother Edward.

The letter, raised in the Legislature as proof the Liberals were selling access to power, sparked an uproar that lasted more than a week.

But the Liberals fired back. Last fall, when DeGasperis struck a deal with Pickering Council to remove agricultural protection from land he owns on the greenbelt known as the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, Queen's Park passed a law reversing the move.

Not to be outdone, DeGasperis turned his guns on provincial land next door that Queen's Park wants to develop into a community for 70,000 called Seaton. The courts threw out his complaint the Seaton planning process was flawed.

But he and his partners will be in court in November arguing the province's environmental assessment is inadequate.

The court action is infuriating for the Liberals, holding up their promise to stop building on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine by offering Seaton land in exchange.

Adding intrigue to the saga, one of the moraine developers is DeGasperis' distant cousin and business rival, Fred, owner of Con-Drain Co., Greater Toronto's largest municipal servicing company.

DeGasperis, 52, built TAAC Construction from the underground up, building sewers, laying pipe and paving roads. But he always wanted to do more than just dig ditches.

He wanted to build dreams like those of his father and grandfather who came from Italy for a better life. So about 10 years ago, he jumped into the homebuilding business — creating suburban communities in Greater Toronto where the dream of homeownership starts at about $250,000.

DeGasperis came to Canada as a 6-year-old in 1960, four years after his father, John, arrived to work in Toronto's construction industry. His grandfather, Michael, immigrated in 1930, working in an Ohio brick factory for 30 years to support his wife and kids back home.

All three generations were reunited in DeGasperis' North York home. While his father worked six days a week to provide for his extended family, the gregarious first-born played.

"I wanted to be a rock star," DeGasperis quips of his days at Downsview Secondary and Ryerson Polytechnic. "I liked the parties and the music and having a good time."

But building was in his bones. And in 1977, after he graduated with an engineering degree from Ryerson, his father put his resources and know-how into helping Gasperis launch TAAC Construction. Before long, DeGasperis' younger brothers Carlo and Michael were on-board.

Why not just join forces with his cousin at Con-Drain?

"It's not always easy to work with families," DeGasperis says. "Business partners are much easier. More straightforward. We socialize as a family and attend each other's weddings. But we don't do business together."

The Urban Development Institute says TAAC is among the area's largest construction servicing companies, if not Number 2 after Con-Drain. Its housing arm, Arista Homes, is among the area's top 10 homebuilders, according to the Greater Toronto Homebuilders' Association.

DeGasperis won't say how much he is worth, but has told industry insiders his companies gross about $650 million a year. He employs 850 people and TAAC owns the biggest backhoe and most advanced equipment in the Toronto area, he says.

"It's all about the toys," he jokes as he drives his fully loaded Lexus SUV over a curb, onto a construction site in Aurora.

"We're building more compact than we used to and the yards are smaller. But at least there's room for a little pool or a swing set for the kids. You can't raise a family in a 600-square-foot box in the sky," he says of Toronto's condo boom and provincial efforts to curb urban sprawl.

Local politicians praise DeGasperis for his high-quality developments and for preserving woodlots and green space.

"This is our signature community," says Aurora Mayor Tim Jones as he tours a subdivision at Bayview Ave. and Wellington St. where streets open to parkland. "We definitely had some tough negotiations, but we couldn't be happier with the result."

DeGasperis says when he proposed the project in 1995, then mayor John West threw him out. To show there were no hard feelings, he named the development's main street after West.

But not everyone loves Silvio.

Pickering environmentalist Bonnie Littley, who has been battling for years to save the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve as a showcase for near-urban farming, wishes DeGasperis would sell his land back to farmers. "He's a rich man. He has other land he can develop. He is only fighting this out of spite," says Littley, a candidate for regional council."I don't think Silvio is used to hearing the word no. I think he's used to getting what he wants."

DeGasperis' charitable donations top $1 million a year and include hospitals in all the communities where he works as well as Catholic and Jewish charities, children's Christmas funds and women's shelters.

Despite heavy business and community responsibilities, DeGasperis says he has tried to be involved in the lives of his children. John, 13, is an avid hockey and golf player; Alexandra, 18, is a student at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business; and Alana, 20, is an aspiring journalist. He and his wife Ada celebrated their 25th anniversary this month with a trip to Italy.

Even his political opponents can't help liking the dapper developer who visits construction sites in Italian leather shoes.

"Silvio is a good time," says Toronto Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), who has crossed swords with DeGasperis over the moraine, York Region's big pipe sewer project, a Markham housing subdivision and the future of the agricultural preserve in Pickering.

"He's charming, intelligent and interesting — and that's not something you can say about a lot of developers and their lawyers," says De Baeremaeker, president of Save the Rouge Valley System. "But when it comes to the agricultural preserve, Silvio is dead wrong."

DeGasperis won't hear it. "We'll let the courts decide," he says with a twinkle.