The Ontario government’s Bill 23 is accelerating concerns about the loss of farmland

After four years of withdrawing protective legislation for the Green Belt, The Government of Ontario’s More Homes Built Faster Act open up acres for urban development.

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The Greenbelt was established in 2005 to protect ecologically sensitive land and farmland from urban development, but the recently announced act, known as Bill 23, will remove 7,400 acres from protection.

Wayne Caldwell, a professor of planning and rural development at the University of Guelph, said he can’t remember a time when the government has stepped in so heavily to override the wishes and desires of communities about their growth trajectory.

[RELATED] Demands for agricultural land protection are intensifying amid daily land loss

Why does it matter: The Ontario government plans to allow more housing on conservation land, concerns farming groups and conservation authorities.

Caldwell said Bill 23 diminishes citizens’ rights and responsibilities to engage in the planning process and influence policy, and alters a decades-old balance of adaptive urban development.

“This has been a balance between trying to accommodate urban development in the context of appropriate growth, in appropriate locations, at appropriate densities, with appropriate timing,” he said.
[PODCAST CLIP] Wayne Caldwell of the University of Guelph explains why Bill 23 complicates land use planning and why some Ontarians oppose Bill 23. To listen to the full Between the Rows podcast episode, “Ontario’s Farmland is Tight,” click here.

The omnibus legislation would overturn the powers of Conservation Authorities (CAs) and remove permits for development projects approved under the planning act. It prevents CAs from entering into agreements with municipalities on planning proposals or applications and requires them to identify land owned or controlled by CAs to support housing development.

Bill 23 would overhaul Ontario’s Wetlands Assessment System, making fewer wetlands designated as significant and removing CA’s ability to regulate or prohibit development that adversely affects wetlands, rivers and streams.

Caldwell tipped his hat to the Ontario Federation’s evolving farmland protection policy, which ensures that decisions made to protect farmland are in the best interests of the farming community, livelihoods and agriculture.

Drew Spoelstra, OFA vice president and Hamilton-area farmer, said Hamilton city planners presented a plan that could meet growth goals through denser development while maintaining a healthy and productive agricultural land base around the border urban.

The provincial rejection and subsequent changes will force Hamilton to open up land for development, most of which is prime agricultural land that produces food, fiber and fuel. In addition, the proposed changes remove Greenbelt acres, including a commercial garden operation that produces local food for consumers around Ancaster.

Spoelstra said everyone has witnessed higher costs and demand for diversity in housing. OFA supports the need for housing, but building and growth must happen responsibly.

“The bottom line is that most of these plans are not good for agriculture. They are not good for future agricultural business planning in these areas and around the GTA,” Spoelstra said. “We think there are better ways to get there than just gobbling up more quality farmland.”
[PODCAST CLIP] Peggy Brekveld with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture discusses what the loss of Ontario farmland to the Greenbelt will mean if Bill 23 is passed. To listen to the full Between the Rows podcast episode, “Ontario’s Farmland is Tight,” click here.

Amendments to the current plan would see development on White Belt land earmarked for future growth after 2050. The White Belt is currently undeveloped, but not protected from future development. It is comprised of land between the outer edge of the approved urban development areas surrounding the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and the Greenbelt.

“Do you want to grow your built-up area and do it the best you can? Then in 2051 you have this white belt land, if we need it, and you can plan as responsibly as possible to put that land to its best use.”

When conservation areas like the Greenbelt are opened to investors and developers, it can spark land speculation, increase land values ​​and reduce the focus on densification and farmland preservation, Caldwell said.

“There is a risk there. If you put more people in smaller confirmed spaces, you tend to create better quality urban spaces, but you also protect farmland somewhere.”

He noted that the planning process can be slow, but for good reason. It allows time to conduct studies on the short- and long-term impacts of development that could result in debt for the municipality.

“We need to deal with housing, (but) we need to do it sensibly and sometimes planning decisions take too long, frankly,” he said. “But a lot of times, it’s for a reason, and it’s about making sure we don’t jeopardize the future with fixed or long-term decisions that might undercut some of those historical things that we’ve done quite well in this province. “

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The Greater Golden Horseshoe is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Janet Horner, executive director of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance, said the government must carefully manage the expansion and use of land there to protect agricultural production.

“With a temperate climate, fertile soils and proximity to local and North American markets, area farmers and food businesses have an unparalleled opportunity to meet the growing demand for food,” Horner said in a news release.

“Protecting the land base through sound land-use planning and intensification policies will help ensure that Canada’s food supply chain remains strong.”

In 2020, the agri-food sector in the 7,200 square kilometers of Greenbelt generated an estimated USD 4.1 billion in GDP. It provided 59,000 jobs and generated $900 million in purchases of farm goods and services in 2017, according to a Greenbelt Foundation report released in February 2022.

Spoelstra said not all government officials understand the rapid disappearance of farmland from the landscape. He hopes commodity groups will present a united front in lobbying the province to protect farmland.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of domestic food security and Ontario’s ability to produce food, he added.

“OFA is not the planning authority in the province, but I think we can definitely say we are one of the authorities when it comes to agriculture,” Spoelstra said. “This will have long-term negative effects on agriculture. It’s not something we want to see happen.” The Ontario government’s Bill 23 is accelerating concerns about the loss of farmland

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