The Helping Homeowners, Protecting Tenants Act would allow farmers to build up to three new homes on existing property
By Diego Flammini
A piece of Ontario government legislation has members of the province’s ag community concerned about the fate of farmland.
“It’s worrisome to say the least,” Crispin Colvin, vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), told Farms.com.
The piece of legislation Colvin is referring to is Bill 97, the Helping Homeowners, Protecting Tenants Act.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark introduced the bill in April as a tool to help the provincial government support the construction of 1.5 million homes in the next 10 years. The bill is currently on its second reading at Queen’s Park.
One part of the bill relates to farmland.
Bill 97 would allow farmers to build up to three new residences on their existing property.
But the legislation lacks clarity, Colvin said.
“There’s no definition of what a farm is,” he said. “Is it five acres? 10 acres? 100 acres? There hasn’t been any definition of how large a home can be. Is it restricted to 2,000 square feet or can you build a 20,000 square-foot mansion? We need more details.”
Farmers with larger operations could split farmland into multiple parcels to build more homes, removing more farmland, Colvin said.
For context, the 2021 Census of Agriculture calculated Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland per day. The 2016 Census of Agriculture pegged the farmland loss at 175 acres per day.
In addition to the overall loss of land, building homes on existing farmland could hinder farming activity.
Placing a new home on an established farm means additional hurdles, Colvin said.
“Now I’m subject to minimum distance separation if I wanted to expand a poultry, beef or hog barn,” he said. “Or what if I’m spreading manure on a Saturday afternoon while someone is trying to have a family picnic? Or at harvest time if a combine goes by someone’s house in the middle of the night? That’s where you run into problems and complaints.”
Bill 97 is a policy that puts agriculture in a challenging situation, said Martin Straathof, executive director of Ontario Farmland Trust.
The Ontario government knows how much farmland Ontario is losing, and this policy decision is going to increase that number, he says.
“Ontario is losing farmland at an alarming rate,” he told Farms.com. “So, when we see policies that are going to weaken protections and allows for farmland fragmentation, we know that’s going to increase the rate of loss.”
And experts in the land planning field say Ontario can accommodate new homes without bulldozing farmland.
A report titled Review of Housing Unit Capacity Identified in Initial Land Needs Assessments Prepared for Upper and Single Tier Municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, prepared by Kevin Eby, a registered professional planner, indicates that “no additional overall housing capacity was required in the (Greater Golden Horseshoe) to meet its share of the 1.5 million housing target.”
The housing issue doesn’t appear to be a land issue, but a developer issue, Straathof says.
“Eby’s report found that we have about 1.25 million homes approved in this province for development, but developers aren’t putting shovels in the ground,” he said. “So when you hear the rhetoric about there being too much red tape stopping home building, or that we have to open up more land, you have to wonder how true that is.”
Finding housing solutions for rural residents is important.
The next generation of farmers need access to housing, and current farmers want to stay in their homes as long as possible.
But the method in which homes are built needs to be a modern one, Straathof said.
“We’re rolling back the clock 50 years by saying the only way to get houses into these rural communities is to sever these lots,” he said. “We should look at newer, more innovative land access models instead of recycling the same policies that lead to the deterioration of our agri-food system.”
Removing arable farmland contributes to other issues, Straathof says.
With an RBC report suggesting 40 per cent of Canadian farmers will retire by 2033, young producers will need land to farm on.
If there’s fewer acres available, the cost of farmland will rise, creating barriers for new farmers.
“What is the future of agriculture in this province if we don’t have a next generation of farmers to get into farming?” he said. “When you sever parcels of farmland, you increase the cost per acre in buying farmland, which further threatens the issue we have about who our farmers are going to be in generations to come.”
Ontario already has some of the most expensive farmland in the country.
Farm Credit Canada’s 2022 Farmland Values Report indicated the cost of farmland in the province increased by 19.4 per cent that year, with farmland in the southwestern part of the province valued at $28,900 per acre.