‘We think this is incredibly short-sighted’

·3 min read

WATERLOO REGION — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is worried about Ontario’s trend of development on agricultural land.

The province approved Bill 257, Supporting Broadband and Infrastructure Expansion Act, 2021 earlier this week. This bill includes Schedule 3 which makes changes to the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders.

Under Schedule 3, Minister’s Zoning Orders — everywhere except within the Greenbelt — no longer need to conform to the Provincial Policy Statement, a key piece of planning legislation, in future and also retroactively for MZOs already issued.

A Minister’s Zoning Order is a previously rarely used tool that allows the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to rezone land while bypassing typical land-use planning mechanisms in the province, and cannot be appealed. The current government has increased use of these orders significantly.

Mark Reusser, Vice President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and local farmer points out that much of the MZOs recently ordered have been on agricultural land.

In 2020 between April and October, at least six MZOs were issued on farmland, according to a report from the NDP.

“We think this is incredibly short-sighted,” says Reusser. “The MZOs are being used to circumvent good planning. They skip the planning process.”

“Only five per cent of Ontario’s land is usable for agriculture, and only a fraction of that is prime land,” says Reusser.

The federation also calculates that between the 2011 census and 2016 census, Ontario lost about 63,940 acres of farmland per year or about 175 acres per day.

“With much of this squandered agricultural land occurring in proximity to larger urban centers, Ontario is losing some of its most productive agricultural land. When agricultural land is paved or built over it is lost forever,” wrote Peggy Brekveld, president of the federation, in a letter to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in opposition to Schedule 3 of Bill 257.

The province’s Environmental Registry notice for Schedule 3 says these changes are for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to ensure critical projects like long term care homes and strategic economic recovery projects are completed as soon as possible.

“If a developer can use an MZO instead of the planning process, why start the planning process at all?” says Reusser.

“A country that can’t feed itself is a country that is vulnerable,” he says. “We came very close to feeling that vulnerability a year ago.”

In spring 2020, issues abounded with bringing over and keeping migrant workers safe throughout the pandemic, with the agricultural industry experiencing delays during key times in the season and even deaths from COVID. Farmers worried about being able to plant and harvest their products.

The ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs estimates 65 per cent of the food grown in Ontario is consumed in the province. The ministry also estimates the province’s agri-food industry contributes $47.7 billion to the provincial economy and supports 837,100 jobs.

While Reusser acknowledges that the province has stated it will not issue MZOs within the Greenbelt, Reusser says, “everywhere else in Ontario needs protection. Why not afford the same protection for farmland in the greenbelt everywhere?”

“Don’t draw lines like that. Protect everything that’s good.”

“The government is struggling during COVID to find ways to stimulate the economy and generate jobs. But the way they have chosen to do this is short-term thinking, it’s not long-term thinking. I’ll suggest there are far better ways to do that, and here’s one suggestion: why not restrict MZOs to inside the urban footprint? In those cases it would make sense.”

“Farm land is a non-renewable natural resource. If you pave it over, it’s gone forever.”

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record