Will the Greenbelt Save Caledon from Sprawl?

Losing its prime agricultural land isn’t Caledon’s only worry.

March 21, 2005 | | Environment

The answer: Maybe at the north end, but new population projections suggest the province is prepared to kiss the Peel Plain goodbye.

Dave Thompson pocketed a cool $1.75 million the other day. Seven years from now he’ll receive the balance – another $1.75 million earned from the sale of his 100-acre dairy farm in south Caledon. Dave’s grandfather, father and his brother, Caledon councillor Allan Thompson, once tilled this fertile soil on the Peel Plain. This may help explain Dave’s defensive tone as he apologized: “If I had a better financial status, I probably wouldn’t have sold.”

Picked off by a developer for $35,000 an acre, the Thompson farm is a victim of new provincial policies intended, ironically, to protect agricultural and environmentally-sensitive land while simultaneously limiting where growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe can occur.

In last fall’s issue of this magazine, I called those policies ‘The Grand Plan.’ John Gerretsen, minister of municipal affairs and housing, said the govern-ment’s goal was to “put the brakes on runaway sprawl.”

However, the newly approved greenbelt map includes a ragged yellow strip of land between the green-coloured protected areas and the grey-coloured urban areas. Dubbed “the yellow choker” by Ontario Nature, the strip has the nebulous designation of “non-urban.”

Instead of a plan worthy of being described as “grand,” I fear the yellow choker will lead Caledon into a future characterized by suburban ghettos on Caledon’s Peel Plain. They will replace what could have been healthy near-urban farms producing a secure supply of reasonably-priced food in an age of soaring oil prices.

The choker appears to be the province’s hedge to accommodate the new population projections that, if Caledon’s mayor Marolyn Morrison is right, could see the number of people in Caledon almost quadruple to 200,000 from the current 55,000.

Released in mid-February, Places to Grow is the government’s plan for growth in the Golden Horseshoe. It forecasts that between now and 2031, the Greater Golden Horseshoe will grow by almost 50 per cent, absorbing another 3.7 million people. Of those, some 610,000 people are destined for Peel (bringing Peel’s population to 1.64 million in 2031 from 1.03 million in 2001).

Swamping earlier growth predictions, these population numbers threaten the Peel Plain as never before – 75 per cent of the Peel Plain is within the yellow choker.

“After they intensify population growth in Mississauga and Brampton and build out those communities, there are 150,000 unallocated people,” says an exasperated Mayor Morrison. “My question is: Where are these people going to go?”

One can only suppose that the population will slop over the urban boundaries into the so-called “non-urban” lands. Mayor Morrison doesn’t conceal her outrage with that prospect: “I’m starting to see a picture that the province has no intention of preserving agriculture on the Peel Plain, and I believe they intend to put a portion of the 3.7 million people coming into the Golden Horseshoe in south Caledon.”

The McGuinty government has put Caledon between a rock and the proverbial hard place. The rock is unchecked population growth that will chase farmers from the Peel Plain. The hard place is an expected collapse of suburban living and a sharp increase in the cost of food brought about by a steep rise in oil prices.

Since 1996, Caledon has acted on the understanding that it would have to accommodate some 85,000 people by 2021. Faced with doubling its population in 25 years, the municipality came up with some creative solutions. Caledon’s tri-nodal growth plan emerged. It was a strategy ahead of its time.

Growth, according to the plan, would be concentrated in three urban centres: Bolton, Caledon East, and a new community near Snelgrove called Mayfield West. Densities of at least 12 people per acre would be high by rural standards though modest when compared with Toronto, for example. The plan also specified two areas that would become industrial/commercial centres. The idea was to reduce the type of growth that spreads out over the countryside where it could inhibit agriculture, have a deleterious effect on the environment and could not be serviced by municipal water and sewage.

Caledon’s tri-nodal policy reflects ‘smart-growth’ principles even though it was devised before smart growth was widely in favour. It also accounts, in large part, for the dramatic change from urban sprawl to open farm fields at Mayfield Road, the boundary between Brampton and Caledon. Sadly, that boundary is about to get more blurry.

A creative solution cooked up for Caledon’s tri-nodal growth plan, Mayfield West is getting closer to reality. In February, two developers offered their visions for this new community near Snelgrove. In its first stages, Mayfield West will house some 8,000 people on roughly 800 acres of prime agricultural land. Heather Konefat, Caledon’s director of planning, jokingly referred to the presentations made by the competing developers as a “beauty contest.” Each plan, The Kennedy Road Village Centre on the east side of Highway 10, and Mayfield Station on the west, lays out a compact development that embraces many smart-growth features, such as high-density town-houses and walkable communities with pedestrian and bicycle accessibility. There are schools, green space and room for businesses to set up shop.

Despite these admittedly progressive features, Mayfield West will be built on excellent farmland that will soon be worth millions of dollars. A few farmers could become wealthy, although the windfall will go mostly to enterprising speculators who purchased the land when Mayfield West first appeared in Caledon’s planning documents.

Mayfield West may be a harbinger of what’s to come for much of south Caledon. If Mayor Morrison’s fears about the government’s intentions are well founded, and the population forecast contained in Places to Grow is correct, there’s a good chance that urban boundaries will give way to development pressures.

Non-urban areas, a.k.a. prime agricultural land in the yellow choker, will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the development onslaught. If this happens, the government of the day may shake its head in that what-else-could-we-do kind of way, and produce a new map on which the yellow of the choker has dark-ened to the grey of built-up urban areas.

But losing its prime agricultural land isn’t Caledon’s only worry. The reality of Ontario’s housing policies and tax structure is that municipalities must build expensive houses, which often have huge ecological footprints, if they are to make ends meet. Caledon’s treasurer Sam Jones told me, “What we have discovered over the years is that if the assessment value is over a certain thres-hold then it [residential development] pays for itself.” He adds, “I think we’re doing slightly better than break even.”

With residential development barely covering its costs, it is industrial/ commercial development that really pays our bills. That’s because business taxes are about three times higher than residential ones, and businesses don’t use many community services. In a textbook world, according to Sam Jones, a municipality wants 30 per cent of its assessment to come from commercial/ industrial sources and 70 per cent from residential. Caledon has a long way to go to meet this admittedly difficult goal. Its current 10:90 split helps explain its high taxes.

One of the problems is that in a place like Mayfield West, filling houses is much easier than filling employment lands. According to planning staff, it isn’t uncommon for developers to go ahead with the residential component of a new development and then, with a sheepish smile and a shrug of their shoulders, explain they aren’t able to fulfill their employment land promises. This prac-tice prompted Karen Hutchinson, the program manager with the Caledon Countryside Alliance, to suggest the town should require the developer to fill the employment lands before being able to develop the residential component.

While communities like Mayfield West may be great compared to 1980s-style suburbs that had no public green space and no employment lands, they are on shaky economic ground and occupy valuable agricultural land. This helps explain why Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion is so adamant that Canada’s sprawl capital should become an independent city. She recognizes that urbanizing Caledon will be expensive. Mayor McCallion, I suspect, wants the majority of the Region of Peel’s reserve funds to pay to maintain Mississauga’s aging infrastructure, not to urbanize Caledon.

Like Mayor McCallion, Caledon’s municipal government recognizes that increasing its population to 85,000, much less to 200,000, comes at a high cost to the environment, to the local economy and to society. Nonetheless, it has little choice but to comply with what amounts to provincial edicts on population growth. It is a system in which the provincial government essentially downloads responsibility for growth management to the municipalities, rather than deal with the root cause of sprawl.

I suggest that provincial minister John Gerretsen’s vow to put the brakes on sprawl came with more posture than commitment. Stopping sprawl requires that the provincial and federal govern-ments get a handle on population growth, not open the merry way for another 3.7 million people to settle in Canada’s most densely populated region.

Almost no one in government and few people anywhere speak out publicly about the troublesome issue of North America’s growth-addicted economic system that is based on the theory that more and bigger is better. But this unrestricted influx of humanity to southern Ontario is eroding its environment, chipping away at its base of prime agricultural land, and compromising its social fabric.

“The assumption of growth,” writes Michael J. Kinsley in Economic Renewal Guide, “is so pervasive that virtually every American community is looking to grow out of it economic problems, even when those problems are them-selves the result of growth.”

To get the message, one only has to experience the crush of cars on rural roads that threatens hikers, equestrians, cyclists and slow-moving farm vehicles, or consider the Ontario Medical Association’s estimates that 1,900 people die prematurely each year because of air pollution. Similarly, since 1966, non-agricultural uses, much of it housing, have consumed over 3.7 million acres of non-renewable agricultural land in Ontario, an area approximately twice the size of the entire greenbelt.

Despite this trend or perhaps because of it, in an interview last year, Caledon councillor Nancy Stewart told me she is not worried about losing agricultural land in Caledon, “because with increased productivity and the low cost of food we can grow it elsewhere.” I fear it’s a philosophy we could all come to regret when the cost of producing and transporting food skyrockets due to a tight energy supply.

Though the McGuinty government touts the greenbelt plan as agriculture’s saviour, many farmers and other experts involved in this sector disagree. Dr. Stewart Hilts, chair of the department of land resource science at the University of Guelph, also heads up the new Ontario Farmland Trust. He told me, “If they think they are protecting farm-land, then I think they’ll be surprised.”

In the first case, the greenbelt excludes the majority of the prime agricultural land that separates the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine from the Greater Toronto Area. This reality, if the sale of the Thompson farm is any indication, was enough for speculators who have been hovering around the Peel Plain to start a buying spree.

Furthermore, passage of the Greenbelt Act means that local farmers lost some of the gains they made when Caledon Council passed OPA 179, Agricultural and Rural Policies, late last year.

Although OPA 179 is similar to the Greenbelt Plan, it offered cash-strapped farmers additional flexibility in the types of extra uses they could have on the farm. For instance, according to town planning staff, the Brampton Fairgrounds, located within Caledon, would not have been permitted under greenbelt rules. Furthermore, some doubt that Downeys would have been allowed their agritainment operation on Heart Lake Road.

While no one wants the Peel Plain to become a series of agricultural theme parks and hobby farms, OPA 179 was aimed at making it easier for farmers to make a living while staying on the farm. The ultimate goal was to attract future generations of farmers. Municipal governments don’t have a huge bag of tools to work with when it comes to im-proving agricultural viability, but Caledon did what it could. OPA 179 will have to be scrapped, however, since the town must now align its agricultural policies with the less flexible Greenbelt Plan.

Many Peel Plain farmers are hopping mad about the Greenbelt Plan. Some participated in farm protests and drove their tractors all the way downtown to surround Queen’s Park. The Greenbelt Plan also prompted a budding alliance between Caledon’s farmers and its environmentalists. It’s an initiative in which I’m involved. After years of mistrust and misunderstanding between the two groups, it appears that common goals have outweighed disagreements. At a recent meeting, environmentalists listened closely to farmers’ concerns and farmers were willing to talk about such alternatives as farmland trusts, paying farmers for environmental services, public education programs about food security, organic agriculture, and buy-local initiatives.

It could be a valuable alliance if we are to stop a trend identified by the American Farmland Trust in a paper by Ed Thompson titled, Agricultural Sustainability and Smart Growth: Saving Urban-Influenced Farmland: “Our agrarian ancestors settled on the best land. But as their villages become sprawling cities, we squander this land at the risk of forcing agricultural production onto more fragile lands or overseas, diminishing the prospects of a sustainable U.S. agriculture.”

Thompson’s point applies equally to southern Ontario. In its GTA Agricultural Action Plan, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture points out that most of the land in the GTA is classified as prime agricultural land. That land also has the benefit of abundant fresh water, heat units conducive to high yielding crops, and proximity to markets and consumers. Yet, this is the very land that successive governments have continued to sacrifice in the name of progress.

Though some GTA farmers are only interested in getting the biggest buck they can for their farms and moving out to real farm country where there are nearby agricultural services, and farm-land costs $6,000 or $7,000 an acre, others are committed to staying put. Keeping farmers farming close to urban centres in places such as the Peel Plain is important for many reasons, but the threat posed by a peak in world oil production is perhaps the most pressing.

In the documentary film, The End of Suburbia, James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, claims that the world’s oil production will peak in the near future. The idea of ‘peak oil’ was first proposed by Dr. M. King Hubbert in the 1950s. Largely ignored at the time, Hubbert’s predictions have recently been renewed by a large chorus of expert scientific opinion. The scientists warn that we will soon be sliding down the backside of the bell curve of oil production and a $50-barrel of oil will look cheap.

Last year, National Geographic warned: “The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be five years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the ‘oil peak’ will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming.” Closer to home, there’s a decline in light crude oil production in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.

In the documentary, the quotable Kunstler says, “The age of the 3,000-kilometre Caesar salad is coming to an end. We’re going to have to grow more food around our towns closer to where we live.”

In other words, because of increasing energy prices due to a worldwide supply squeeze, we won’t be able to afford to transport lettuce all the way from California. Nor are car-dependent suburbs going to offer an economical cost of living. We’re going to wish we hadn’t paved over all that wonderful farmland in the Greater Toronto Area.

Currently, agricultural subsidies in places like California mask the rising cost of energy. Dr. William Rees at the University of British Columbia, however, doubts that this can last for long. “I don’t see how [agriculture] can escape price inflation if we pass peak oil. I suspect that much of the profit margin in food sales has already been eroded by increased energy costs.” In one of several such studies, The Centre for Rural Studies and Enrichment in Saskatchewan recently reported that retail prices continue to rise faster that farm-gate returns.

In The End of Suburbia, Michael C. Ruppert from the Wilderness Publication explains, “In the U.S. and North America we consume 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy for every calorie of food we eat, not counting transportation and cooking.” The University of Colorado’s Dr. Albert Bartlett refers to modern agriculture as “the use of land to convert oil into food.”

Their comments make me realize that Kunstler hasn’t captured the whole picture with his catchy line about Caesar salad. It’s not only California fruits and vegetables that are going to become more expensive, and it’s not only fuel for transportation that is the problem. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are derived from fossil fuels and they are going to cost more too. This is where I think councillor Nancy Stewart is mistaken. It may be self-serving, but I think we’d be wise to grow as much food as we can, as close to home as possible, with as few industrial inputs as we can get away with.

All of this leaves Caledon in a situation where the provincial government appears to be forcing it to turn its prime agricultural land into uneconomical suburbs at a time when rising oil prices will turn suburbs into ghettos that, had they remained in agriculture, could have supplied reasonably-priced food when imported produce becomes astronomically expensive.

Some grand plan.

About the Author More by Nicola Ross

Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton and is the author of the bestselling 'Loops and Lattes' hiking guide series.

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