Provincial Government Makes Significant Retreat on Land Use Planning

By John Bacher

On April 11, 2023, the provincial government proposed changes to the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), subject to a public comment period through the Environmental Registry. The comment period was supposed to be concluded on June 8th, 2023. It has been extended to August 4th, 2023.

The proposed PPS had a destructive call for the reversal of a prohibition on agricultural severances, which was one of the most significant early reforms of the newly elected Liberal government of Dalton McGinty over twenty years ago. It had provisions that such severances for residential lots could be granted based on three lots for each farm. Normally such farm lots were defined in the 19th century as 100-acre parcels, but some have been further fragmented, especially on the most valuable farmland suitable for fruit growing.

The proposed severance policy, according to the Ontario Farmland Trust, would have resulted in 145,000 to 510,000 lots scattered throughout Ontario’s class one to three food lands. This would have resulted in the loss of 1.25 to 4.3 percent of Ontario’s farmland base. In Oxford Ontario alone, an area predominately of class one soil,18,500 residential lots would have sprawled over farmland.

The proposed severance deluge was opposed by a joint letter signed by the three general farm organizations (Ontario Federation of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, and Christian Farmers) and several farm commodity groups, such as the egg and dairy associations. The joint statement stated that:

“Residential lot creation in agricultural areas has long been controversial and the detrimental impacts for agriculture are well demonstrated, including fragmentation of the agricultural land base, increased conflicts between neighbouring land uses, risk of inflating farmland prices, and increasing costs to municipalities. In addition, we have significant concerns regarding the speculative investment that this proposal will drive, resulting in farmland values that make farming even more unattainable for the next generation. Any policies that might open land for speculative purchase and investment need to be discouraged.

As farm leaders and organizations, we have worked diligently to manage and mitigate conflict between farming and non-farming neighbours in all types of agriculture. The proposed changes will exacerbate conflict between farming and non-farming neighbours for all aspects of farming, including the application of crop nutrition, crop protection products, wildlife control, and more.”

In conclusion, the farm leaders pleaded that “Directing growth to settlement areas, urban and rural is better for both agriculture and municipalities. This reduces farmland loss and potential land use conflicts while encouraging investment in farm and farm-related businesses. It also ensures efficient use of municipal infrastructure investments and reduces service costs. Responsible land-use planning is critical to balancing the needs of growing communities and to ensure that our agriculture and agri-food sector survives and thrives.”

The farm leaders called their sector “an economic powerhouse, fueling rural communities, generating nearly 750,000 jobs, and contributing more than $47 billion to Ontario’s annual GDP.”  They described the proposal as a threat to the “long-term food system security for the people of Ontario.”

At the same time, the government backed down on its deluge of residential severances, it announced the content of proposed Natural Heritage Policies to the PPS. Blessedly, while negative changes were anticipated widely, the old PPS policies have been carried on.

The only strong PPS natural heritage policy that currently exists is wetland protection. In southern Ontario, site alteration on wetlands is strictly prohibited (except for infrastructure). The big problem with this situation is that as a result of a previous policy change, no new wetlands will be mapped and protected. This is because of a change by the Ford government in how wetlands are to be mapped. While in the past, this mapping was done by public servants employed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, any future evaluations are to be done by private consultants selected by landowners. Only about a third of potentially provincially significant wetlands in southern Ontario have been mapped and, consequently, protected.

The PPS appears to have on paper good policies for woodlands, significant wildlife habitat, and the habitat of species at risk. The problem with them is how, in practice, this is determined. Determination of the critical issue of if development can take place on such lands without the loss of ecological function is determined by the developers’ consultants. This is done through a document known as an Environmental Impact Study (EIS.) Recently, such an EIS claimed significant woodlands near a provincially significant wetland in Niagara Falls (known as Thundering Waters), which had lost or was about to lose this status because of ash die-off and buckhorn succession. When the tree-cutting plan (required under Niagara Region’s tree by-law) was prepared it was found that contrary to the fiction of the EIS, most of the woodlands were dominated by healthy native Willow and Cottonwood trees.

Ontario’s farm organizations have held the line on land use planning policies protecting Ontario’s landscapes threatened by mindless sprawl. Hopefully, this will encourage long term cooperation between them and environmental protection groups.