Employing a divide-and-conquer strategy to push a pro-development agenda under the guise of providing more housing, Doug Ford has run afoul of a very much united pushback by farm groups in the province.
So much so that the Conservative government appears to be reversing course on its plan to allow up to three new residential lots on existing farm properties.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) was joined by a long list of agriculture-related groups in condemning the idea after it was floated by the province. This week the groups welcomed the government’s promise to look at alternatives.
The organizations had argued the provincial plan would have seen already dwindling stocks of prime farmland disappear to development.
Farmland is already slipping away at an alarming rate. Statistics Canada reports that Ontario lost 580,000 acres of farmland between 2016 and 2021 alone. At that pace, 25 per cent of the province’s existing farmland will be gone in the next 25 years.
The building spree proposed by Ford would only weaken already poor controls over the loss of farmland, including sprawl. The government has already gutted some municipal planning controls – some of them wasteful – and added new areas of development to the likes of Woolwich and Wellesley townships, for instance, in its purported effort to see some 1.5 million new homes built over a 10-year period.
The province maintains the severance of farm properties for building lots was meant to allow families to make use of their land rather than the creation of new homes for the general public.
“It has never been our intention for severed lots to be transferred or sold to non-family/farm owners,” Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark said in a letter to the farm groups. “Any ambiguity regarding our intentions will be clarified, eliminated and resolved.”
Still, the idea didn’t sit well with farm owners and the wider agri-food sector.
“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,” the farm organizations said in their joint open letter to the Ford government.
Along with losing arable land, the practice would likely drive up the price of farmland and act as an incentive to sell land for profit. Developers already buying up land on speculation might be encouraged to do even more, a trend the Ford government has exacerbated, not helped. The government is already seen as much too cozy with developers, as witnessed by revelations surrounding plans to build out portions of the Greenbelt.
Among the provincial measures already generating opposition are overriding municipal official plans, expanding urban boundaries, fast-tracking planning reviews and building permits and the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders to allow new development.
Some of the moves will see farmland disappear. Given existing concerns about food security and prices, the loss of agricultural land is already difficult to justify. Add in projected growth – however unjustifiable and unsustainable – and that situation is only going to get worse.
No fan of previous government efforts to increase densities and limit greenfield development, Ford nonetheless needs to be mindful of farmland protection. Policies that would push back against growth, reduce the demand side of the housing equation and promote less-as-more are anathema to the current bunch at Queen’s Park, however.