Can land use planning protect farmland and still build homes?

Photo by Simon Carr (Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can governments protect valuable farmland while at the same time build housing needed for ever-expanding cities and urban cities?

That question is being asked throughout Ontario agriculture this week after the provincial government passed the More Homes Built Faster Act, Bill 23. The legislation has drawn the ire of critics, as Premier Doug Ford moves to develop more than 7,000 acres, including prime farmland, in the Greenbelt around the city of Toronto. The province says it needs 1.5 million new homes to meet the burgeoning housing demands. About three percent, or 50,000 homes, are slated to be built on Greenbelt land.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has taken an active role in trying to shape provincial land use policy, emphasizing that effective planning can protect both farmland and build homes. OFA land use policy analyst Emily Sousa says the farm lobby organization is concerned because farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate in Ontario.

Based on University of Guelph data, between 2000 and 2017 more than 72,000 acres of prime farmland was lost to development. Sousa also notes that this farmland disappearance is a direct result of governments changing the rules to allow for development. Over the course of this 17-year period, 545 official plan amendments were made to enable development on these acres.

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Sousa shares ideas on how to protect farmland while also thinking creatively on how to best accommodate seemingly-unstoppable city expansion. She says OFA believes in designing land use policies and making decisions that keep growth within fixed urban boundaries and intensification of urban areas where possible. (Story continues after the interview.)

Sousa notes that the development of land use official plans is supposed to address societal needs, including affordable new housing and protecting farmland for food production. But some municipalities are better at protecting, and respecting, their official plan.

“Halton Region, Hamilton, and Waterloo are examples of municipalities that through their official plan have said, no, we are going to hold firm the urban boundary. We can build houses within the existing urban area, as well as protect farmland,” says Sousa. However, in some situations in regions like Halton and Hamilton, the province has essentially reversed decisions and brought more farmland into the urban boundary.” Time will tell whether municipal politicians have the will to keep the land-hungry province at bay.

When it comes to Bill 23, Sousa says the legislation presents both challenges and opportunities for farmland preservation. On the negative side, new rules will seek to remove planning responsibilities from upper tier municipalities, including regions and counties across Ontario. “Essentially, this proposal looks to download all of those planning responsibilities or authorities to the lower tier level,” says Sousa. One of the big challenges is how smaller towns, especially in rural areas, can manage this responsibility. “Many townships don’t even have a planning department,” says Sousa.

“Historically, the upper tier or county or regional government, from a planning perspective, has been responsible for containing growth within their urban boundaries — allocating which cities, which areas in the region are going to get more housing where farmland needs to be protected,” says Sousa. “So when we download that to the lower level, it really does open up the doors for more piecemeal, scattered, unorganized development. And we see that as being a significant threat to farmland.”

As for opportunities, Sousa says the province has committed to addressing what it calls the missing middle. “What that means is to infill and provide additional housing where housing already exists.” For example, the province will look at allowing single family dwellings to expand to three units on one lot. “So you could have another basement apartment as well as a maybe a granny suite in the back. That’s a fantastic move because it does help infill and provide development within the existing urban boundary.”

Sousa says OFA would like to see the government be even more ambitious in this area. “What about more triplexes, quadplexes, townhomes, walk-up apartments… we’re not asking for skyscrapers in these areas, but there are other ways that we can infill and increase density.”