10 Years of the Greenbelt
Ontario launched the Greenbelt Plan’s 10-year review, which is taking place concurrently with reviews of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan & Places to Grow.
Environmental Success, Farming Challenge
The Greenbelt is largely working to protect land – so much so that many want it expanded. Now the trick is to sustain the people and communities who live within it.
On an unpaved road in the town of Mono, where the waters of the Humber and Credit rivers rise in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment, Gerry Reid operates Reid’s Potatoes and Farm Market. The Reid farm is in the Greenbelt near the intersection of three conservation authority jurisdictions. He grows potatoes and a cornucopia of other seasonal vegetables, some of which he sells directly from his farm via a self-serve market.
Reid is not the farmer in the Ontario government’s Greenbelt promotional videos, but he might as well be. His operation – a family farm that grows fresh produce for the Greater Toronto market – is just what the Greenbelt was created to encourage. So it’s surprising to learn that Reid is, at best, lukewarm about the Greenbelt concept.
Ten years after the Greenbelt Act protected his land for farming forever, primarily through rules stating it cannot be severed into residential lots or developed for non-agricultural uses, Reid believes the legislation hasn’t made a speck of difference in his day-to-day operations.
“Made another layer of bureaucracy is really what it’s done,” he says. “I know they’re trying to save the planet, but I think agriculture was maybe doing that before anyway. And the plan hasn’t shown us any great benefits.”
This spring, the province launched the Greenbelt Plan’s mandated 10-year review, which is taking place concurrently with reviews of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Places to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. To gather input from citizens, 17 town hall meetings were held at various Greenbelt locations, including Caledon, where about 400 people turned out. Written submissions were collected through the end of May.
A six-member expert advisory panel, chaired by former Toronto mayor and MP David Crombie, will spend this summer poring over the input and preparing advice on proposed amendments. These will be brought back to the public for comment this fall and finalized by mid-2016.
Predicting the policy tweaks the panel will recommend is impossible. But recommended revisions are likely to reflect that the Greenbelt has been a success in protecting land and water, while farmers either give it a failing grade or, like Reid, regard it with a shrug.
Unlike a few years ago, when those who opposed the Greenbelt’s creation were getting all the press, the plan’s detractors accept that the 1.8 million acres (about 728,460 hectares) of protected area is here to stay. More than its aggregate resources or agricultural wealth, the Greenbelt is political gold, consistently enjoying more than 90 per cent support province-wide.
And yet, in the blunt words of Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Don McCabe, “The Greenbelt is not working for Ontario farmers and change needs to be made. Ontario farms need to be profitable and the Greenbelt as it is currently structured is not assisting in giving key policy direction to allow that.” For this reason, the OFA recently decided not to support any expansion of the Greenbelt, even though the organization officially supports the long-term protection of all prime farmland in the province.
To preserve farming in the Greenbelt, much more needs to be done than simply protecting it from housing development. If the first decade of the Greenbelt Plan was about stopping sprawl, agricultural survival is the challenge of the next.
A complicated relationship with the Greenbelt
Randy McLeod, president of the Peel Federation of Agriculture, farms 350 acres (about 142 hectares) of Greenbelt land in Caledon East. Like Reid, he says he has seen “no benefit” to being in the Greenbelt. At the Caledon meeting, says McLeod, “the majority of people stood up and said, ‘Save the farmland, save the farmland, save the farmland.’ What I said was that’s a really good first step, but what you really need to do is save the farmer.”
Land prices are one problem. Many farmers continue to resent the “greenbelting” of their land because its value took a hit, for which they were never compensated. According to Tom Dolson, a Caledon farmer and real estate agent with the aptly named EXIT Realty, farmland on the urban edge of the Greenbelt can be worth as little as one-quarter as much as developable acreage right across the road in the so-called whitebelt, unprotected land that falls between the urban fringe and the Greenbelt. In this area, sprawl has continued apace. According to Environmental Defence, 18 per cent (about 47,000 acres or 19,000 hectares) of the whitebelt’s remaining farmland disappeared between 2002 and 2014.
The land price question is more complicated, however, than simply a lost opportunity to sell to developers, which most, such as Janet Horner of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance, accept as a price of protecting land for the greater good. “As a society we have to understand whether we’re protecting agricultural land or protecting the speculators,” Horner says. “In the end, what we should be doing is protecting the best agricultural land that has been disappearing at such a rate that it’s mind-boggling.”
Discussing property values with farmers in the Greenbelt may seem confusing, because after complaining they can no longer sell their land to developers for $100,000 an acre, they are likely to say that Greenbelt land is too expensive.
Their point is that, though subdivision development may be off the table, proximity to Toronto’s wealth still buoys Greenbelt prices higher than the land’s productive value for agriculture. Farmland in Caledon sells for $25,000 to $40,000 an acre, according to Dolson, which means the price of a 100-acre farm can run as high as $4 million. That’s several times the cost of prime agricultural land north of the Greenbelt and well out of the reach of young farmers, who could look to a place such as Melancthon Township where prime farmland was selling last year for about $8,500 an acre.
“I can’t see any farmer that’s able to buy land in Caledon in the Greenbelt and pay for it strictly through agriculture,” says McLeod. So Greenbelt land is caught in the middle. A farmer can’t get rich quick by selling it to developers, but other farmers can’t afford to buy it. As a result, instead of going to a new generation of farmers, land is being snatched up by city dwellers looking for trophy properties, taking farms out of production and driving up prices even further.
The high value of land brings with it higher municipal property taxes, along with complaining neighbours, trespassing, traffic-clogged roads, high labour costs and vanishing agricultural infrastructure. These factors add to the many challenges and costs of doing business close to the city.
“Consumers see the tremendous bounty that’s in our local grocery stores and equate that with the economic well-being of agriculture in this area,” says McLeod. “But when you dig down a little bit deeper and look at where this stuff is coming from, very little of it is sourced from Ontario.” He’s talking about the disconnect between the public perception of the Greenbelt and what it’s actually able to do for farmers, which seldom translates into any added premium to make up for the costs of being close to cities.
Most of the current farming in the Greenbelt is not the type that benefits from being close to markets. According to research by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, crops that do benefit from market proximity are primarily fruit and vegetables, as well as “flowers and other nursery products, Christmas tree operations, and sod.”
Thanks to the specialty crop areas of the Niagara Peninsula and the Holland Marsh, the Greenbelt does account for a large percentage of Ontario’s fresh produce: 55 per cent of the province’s fruit-growing acreage, 60 per cent of its celery and 35 per cent of its carrots and onions.
But more than 60 per cent of Greenbelt agricultural land is planted in field crops such as soybeans and corn, which don’t show up at local farmers’ markets and don’t command a premium for being fresh and local. Farmers must sell these products in a global marketplace, where they compete against producers who aren’t dealing with the Greater Golden Horseshoe’s high costs for land and labour.
“We’re competing with the commodity prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange,” says McLeod. “That’s what dictates the price for grains and oil seeds.” Despite their vast acreage, these grain and oilseed crops make up only 14 per cent of Greenbelt farm revenues.
Partly as a result of these factors, agriculture in the Greenbelt, especially large-animal agriculture, has decreased – and the plan has failed to stop the decline. In 2006, more than 50 per cent of the Greenbelt was farmed, and the area included more than 6,000 farms. Today, these numbers are closer to 43 per cent and 5,500 farms. Between 2001 and 2011, the acreage farmed in the Greenbelt decreased by 10 per cent, nearly twice the rate of decline recorded in the rest of Ontario.
Regulatory burden without compensation
To hear farmers tell it, what the farming community around Toronto needs is a zone of special economic stimulus. Instead, it got a constricting belt of bureaucracy.
A sore point is the imposition of natural heritage corridors and buffer zones on farm property. Under the Greenbelt Plan, the presence of 13 possible “key natural heritage” or “key hydrologic features,” such as “significant” woodlands or wetlands, triggers a complex set of protections. (The Ministry of Natural Resources sets the criteria for what is significant.) “Development or site alteration” is mostly prohibited in these areas and in a surrounding 30-metre “vegetation protection zone.”
“The lack of consultation in putting these boundaries in is a main concern,” says McCabe. “If somebody came along and said one-third of your lawn is no longer your lawn and you can’t do what you want to do with it, and you can’t be compensated but you still need to pay taxes on it, how would you feel? There’s not a mechanism of appeal to say, ‘Why has this been put in place; why is this here?’”
He adds, “Farmers are already stewards of their land and natural corridors already exist. You don’t need to draw lines on a map.”
This resentment of Etch a Sketch-style bureaucracy is a typical farmer’s complaint, partly because, as one landowner at the town hall meeting in Milton said, “The only reason there’s natural heritage in agricultural areas is because the farmers looked after it.” If the government wants to step in now and make stewardship mandatory, farmers say, then show them the money.
Rather than eliminating or redrawing the boundaries, which are based on sound ecological principles, one way forward might be to compensate farmers for their role in protecting the natural heritage features that benefit everyone.
Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation observes that farmers provide valuable environmental protection for free. The foundation estimates that, every year, the Greenbelt as a whole provides at least $2.6 billion worth of “ecosystem services,” such as drinking water protection, flood control and climate stabilization.
Rural residents make up only 14 per cent of the provincial population; farmers, 1.4 per cent. So it may be time to find better ways to compensate the minority for taking on the stewardship of the Greenbelt by creating policies that, as Moola says, encourage farmers to keep land in agriculture and to implement more sustainable farm practices. The OFA is requesting that the government “develop an environmental goods and services program to compensate farmers who maintain land in long-term agricultural production.”
In 2004, the province’s Greenbelt Task Force made similar recommendations, urging the “promotion of agricultural easements, and land trusts for farmers who participate in conservation activities and use best practices and management.” A decade later, you could cut and paste this into the next set of recommendations.
Streamlining and harmonizing the plans
One thing on which nearly everyone, including farmers and environmentalists, can agree is that the rules in the next iteration of the various plans must be clearer and less restrictive for farmers than they were in the initial push to stop the GTA’s wildfire sprawl at the turn of this century.
“The overriding threat in 2001 was not agriculture, it was urbanization,” says Debbe Crandall, a Caledon resident and policy analyst for STORM, the Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition. “Development was completely out of control. That was the thing we were fighting against. Unfortunately, we used a very dull instrument and a sledgehammer approach. I think it’s fair to say we perhaps overreacted a bit. It was necessary at the time.”
STORM partnered with three other environmental organizations – Earthroots, EcoSpark and Ontario Nature – to make a submission to the province’s 2015 Co-ordinated Land Use Planning Review. Among the submission’s detailed recommendations, it notes that undue restrictions have prevented local businesses from thriving and growing. It also calls for policies to “support innovation for farmers and rural businesses through increased flexibility in permitted uses and their accessory uses.”
Crandall cites the example of a farmer who wants to build a sugar shack in his woodlot, something that will have no significant impact but is prohibited under current policies.
In 2014, the Provincial Policy Statement, which governs land-use planning province-wide, was revised to promote agricultural viability, including permitting more diversified uses, such as agritourism, on farms. The idea was to make it easier for farmers to add something like a sausage-making facility and store or a cidery and restaurant to their farm.
And yet, according to Caledon mayor Allan Thompson, a farmer with a long history of involvement in Peel Region’s agricultural community, the Spirit Tree Estate Cidery on Boston Mills Road was almost never built because it faced so many confusing and restrictive policies, which are still in effect today. Caledon is unique because it includes areas in all three plans: the Greenbelt, the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment. As a result, says Thompson, “People are drowning in restrictions.”
“We have the Provincial Policy Statement that’s hammered out some really good policies for agriculture,” he adds. “It has everything that we’re looking for. It has everything dealing with environmental statutes, and yet the Oak Ridges Moraine doesn’t agree with it, the Niagara Escarpment doesn’t agree with it, and the Greenbelt is far more restrictive.”
Thompson’s solution? “Let’s harmonize the plans,” he says, to create a “one-stop shop agricultural policy.” Others call this a “central desk” or “one-window approach.” What farmers say they want is clarity – a single place to get a straight answer on what’s permitted, along with an appeal mechanism they have so far been denied.
Harmonization is another thing on which municipal politicians, planners, environmentalists and farmers’ organizations agree. They want consistency between the policies and language of the Provincial Policy Statement and the four land-use plans, which were written at different times and don’t even share common definitions of things such as wetlands.
Updating the language and definitions of the various plans to bring them into line with the Provincial Policy Statement is a key recommendation of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance’s submission to the 2015 review. The alliance’s other recommendations include:
- protecting agricultural land from fragmentation (i.e., maintaining the “connectivity” of farmland, to borrow language from natural heritage protection)
- providing access to infrastructure such as natural gas, water, high-speed Internet and three-phase power
- imposing buffer zones for development around farmland.
The final point echoes OFA policy, which supports establishing permanent boundaries for urban growth. In other words, farmers are saying that if you want to preserve farmland, don’t draw a line around it and make a Greenbelt to manage farmers. Draw a line around the cities instead. Keep development in its place and leave the farmers alone.
Dreams for improvement
A few months before Gord Miller stepped away from his position as Ontario’s environmental commissioner, he expressed support for a sweeping overhaul of Ontario’s clumsy patchwork of land-use planning laws. “The overall planning process of Ontario doesn’t work,” Miller told Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda. “Every time we have a problem, we have to pass a piece of legislation. The Greenbelt is a fix for a land-use planning process that was failing the GTA. I want a bigger change. I want a land-issue planning process for at least southern Ontario fixed in its entirety.”
Many organizations share Miller’s view. In a joint submission to the review, the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce and Food & Water First, originally formed to fight The Highland Companies’ mega quarry, request a 10-year moratorium on non-farm development of class 1 farmland across the entire province. Echoing Miller, the submission lists seven more land-use planning acts or documents, such as The Big Move and the Local Food Act, that it wants aligned with the four main plans covered by the province’s 2015 co-ordinated review.
This harmonization may be the direction the province was going in its 2014 review of the Provincial Policy Statement. And this year’s co-ordinated review may bring it a step closer, though surely not all the way, to Miller’s utopian goal.
Already, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing acknowledges that the government is hearing the farmers’ message and says that preliminary consultation feedback includes “support for strengthening agricultural land protection, providing flexibility for on-farm economic activities, support for farmers, and streamlining implementation/approvals processes that affect farming.” So watch for new policies to address those concerns to be drafted this fall.
But Crandall hopes the review will do more. She hopes it will launch a “rural prosperity strategy” that pours more brainpower – like the work the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation have already been doing – into the question of what Greenbelt agriculture and the whole rural economy will look like when the traditional livestock and cash-crop farmers retire and move away, and when rural communities are no longer being sustained by the revenues of boundless development.
“What’s going to replace them?” Crandall asks. “What’s the next frontier?” Without the answer, the Greenbelt Plan will be nothing more than a failed experiment.
The Greenbelt: What’s working
A “perfect storm” of environmental policy
Many issues continue to threaten the ecological integrity of the Greenbelt. Dirt excavated by the building boom in the GTA – a direct side effect of Places to Grow’s mandated intensification – produces truckloads of often toxic fill that is dumped in the country with little regulation or oversight. Infrastructure gets a pass under Greenbelt legislation if it is deemed necessary. Large-scale energy projects are being approved on the Oak Ridges Moraine. And Ontario’s transportation ministry is currently setting the route for a new 400-series highway that will slash through the Greenbelt.
Furthermore, aggregate mining is allowed to proceed and dig below the water table in many areas. New sprawl continues to pop up because no “sunset clause” shuts down applications that were submitted before the plans took effect – an example is the recently resurrected 16-year-old plan to build 28 luxury homes on the moraine at the corner of Mount Wolfe Road and Old Church Road in Caledon. And according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Greenbelt does “nothing to address the leapfrogging of development activity and pressure onto lands immediately beyond the Greenbelt.”
Despite this gloom, the Greenbelt Plan has been remarkably successful at slowing or stopping environmental decline within its borders. Though the plan has been in effect for a decade, the province has done little to monitor its success, only hastily producing a document in time for this year’s review. Noting that the rate of lot creation in the Greenbelt has slowed, the document concludes,“The majority of new lots and dwelling units are being directed to settlement areas and away from agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands.”
Fortunately, other organizations have done a much better monitoring job. The Conservation Authorities Moraine Coalition, made up of the nine conservation authorities whose watershed boundaries cover the entire moraine, produced a detailed report card that gives both the Greenbelt Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan passing marks for environmental health – a B or “good” for forest conditions and a C or “fair” for surface water quality. (To earn an A, the environment would have had to show significant improvement.) The coalition also found that groundwater quality is “locally good.”
Between 2008 and 2013, overall forest conditions and groundwater quality were comparable to those that existed in 2002 to 2004, suggesting the plans have helped maintain existing conditions, while leaving much room for improvement in repairing environmental damage and protecting against future threats, including the unpredictable outcomes of climate change.
An exhaustive 2012 study of Greenbelt wetlands commissioned by Ducks Unlimited Canada, Earthroots, Ecojustice and Ontario Nature reached a similar conclusion: “Land-use policy in effect across the Greenbelt is protecting wetlands from most forms of development.”
Municipal planners interviewed for this study said the plans give their municipalities powerful tools for protecting the environment. One senior planner described these tools as “the perfect storm of policy” for those hoping to identify and protect natural heritage systems.
In less than two decades Caledon’s population will be 75 per cent urban. Can its countryside values survive the shift?