The OFA is advocating for responsible growth to ensure the provincial government is facilitating the development of small rural municipalities without compromising farmland
By Jackie Clark
The provincial government is tasked with balancing the need for housing in the province and improving rural services and protecting farmland. Recently, some rural residents have expressed concern that development may take priority.
In December the provincial government added Bryan Tuckey, who was formerly a lobbyist for the development industry, to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), and did not renew the appointments of four tribunal members with environmental interests, according to a Feb. 7 Globe and Mail article. The LPAT is the body that hears public appeals over development decisions in the province, and is made up of mostly law and planning experts. There are no members with agricultural expertise.
However, generally, the LPAT system is “a much better option,” than the old Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), Keith Currie, president of the OFA, told Farms.com.
“Under the old system the appeal mechanism went to the OMB … in a lot of cases it was something that the local people may not be able to afford,” Currie explained.
The LPAT “makes it easier to go through the process and justify why or why not an application should be approved. I think in general terms it’s a much more effective way for the process of appealing to be heard. In general terms we are OK with that process,” he added.
The OFA is committed to working with the government to understand the importance of protecting prime agricultural land.
The provincial government recently announced up to $3.9 million in funding “to help 42 small and rural municipalities modernize service delivery including ways to speed up the process for approving new housing and commercial developments,” said a Feb. 24 government statement about the Municipal Modernization Program. Similarly, on Feb. 28 the province provided an update on land use planning rules that stated “Ontario is reducing red tape to help communities across the province build more homes for families and create a more competitive business environment.”
Currie emphasized that this development needs to be done responsibly.
“Prime ag land is a very finite resource; once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said. “Ontario has the majority of class 1 land in Canada, but the majority of that class 1 land is now entrenched underneath concrete and pavement. And we can’t get it back.”
Rural municipalities need to manage their development properly to provide the necessary housing and services without irresponsible sprawl.
“We want to protect that prime ag land, but we do understand that for the economy to continue to grow and for us to get the labour and services we need, we do need that growth. What we’re advocating for is responsible growth,” Currie said.
“Municipalities through their official plan have a 20- to 30-year growth plan and within that is designated land for that growth … designated areas need to be filled in and grown responsibly,” he added.
Responsible growth is in the best interest of farmers, municipalities and other rural residents.
“We don’t want to see lot severances in rural (areas) because it not only eats up the farmland, it also creates a myriad of other issues that the farm community will have to deal with. So grow in the growth plan areas, grow responsibly. We are trying to protect prime ag land, class 1, 2 and 3 land from massive development,” Currie explained.
He thinks the provincial government understands that imperative.
“When you look at the makeup of this government right now, the senior people in the government are predominantly rural members, so they have familiarity with where we’re at,” he said.
However “they’re getting pressure from developers to open up more land,” he added.
In 2015 Currie sat on an expert advisory panel investigating opportunities for growth in the Greenbelt.
“We knew at that time, and this came from the development world, that they estimated they had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 to 30 years worth of available land to grow on, just in the Greenbelt alone. So, trying to say that we need to open up for more development is not true,” he explained.
“We don’t need to open up more land for development. We have that land already, let’s just make sure we utilize that,” he added.
That panel’s report recommended “municipalities (shouldn’t) get to apply for a boundary expansion unless they can prove that they’ve grown responsibly,” Currie said. “This government won’t necessarily make that a hard and fast rule,” but it is still an important principle.
“We’re looking for more businesses and services in rural Ontario to revitalize our communities, which (fosters population growth), so let’s make sure we do it right,” Currie said.
It’s the responsibility of the provincial government to govern that, and “so far, so good,” Currie said.
The Municipal Modernization Program “hasn’t been in place long enough to judge whether it’s working or effective, but I think in principle it is looking for that responsible growth,” Currie said.
The OFA and other advocates for agriculture will “have to keep monitoring (the situation) and make sure we hold feet to fire in terms of responsible growth,” he added.
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