By Larry Davis
Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
Land use planning and the policies governing it are of keen interest to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and our farming members – primarily from the perspective of preserving productive agricultural land for its broadest uses.
Municipal land use in Ontario is guided by the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), first adopted in 1996/1997 and most recently updated in 2019. Municipalities use the PPS as the minimum standard on land use policies, including lot creation policies. Municipalities cannot establish local land use planning policies that are less restrictive than in the PPS or one of the ‘space-based’ land use plans. Land use policies in some areas of the province are also guided by ‘space-based’ land use plans, including the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Niagara Escarpment Plan and the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario.
Rural severances were once common practice in municipalities across rural Ontario when lots were severed for residential use, farm retirement lots or to create a surplus residence for a farm operation. Today, after several changes to the PPS, with the exception of residence surplus to a farming operation, the creation of new non-farm residential lots in prime agricultural areas is not permitted.
OFA supports this land use policy and opposes residential lot creation in prime agricultural areas. OFA developed a Consolidated Agricultural Land Use Policy Statement in 2001, combining provincial land use planning-related policies, statements and submissions. In this statement, OFA clearly opposed non-farm lot creation in prime agricultural areas – a position we continue to hold today.
OFA’s position is based on solid rationale and not just the loss of productive agricultural land. A variety of studies – including OFA’s Cost of Community Services case study – found that scattered rural residential development actually cost more for municipalities to provide services for than the property tax revenue received. There are also Minimum Distance Separation (MDS) consequences when non-farming developments occur in agricultural areas. For example, a one-acre, non-farming lot in a prime agricultural area effectively sterilizes the surrounding 250 acres from hosting a new livestock barn or manure storage facility. It may also limit the expansion of an existing livestock or poultry farm within that 250-acre area.
Data from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in the 1990s indicated that farm retirement lots only stayed in the hands of the retired farmer for approximately two to three years before they were sold, often to non-farmers. Conflict can then arise when residents who are unfamiliar with the realities of farming and farm practices move to rural areas. While the Farming and Food Production Protection Act helps farmers manage nuisance complaints about odours, dusts, noises, etc., farmers must still manage complaints from neighbours and defend their farm practices.
Severing agricultural land for non-farm residential or commercial building lots removes farmland from production forever. The ongoing loss of prime agricultural land in Ontario can’t be ignored. Census data from 1996 to 2016 shows a steady decline in farmland area – from 13.8 million acres to 12.3 million acres over this 20-year period. Today, Ontario’s farmland represents less than 5 percent of the province’s overall land area.
Living in Ontario’s rural countryside is a privilege. As farmers, we appreciate the open spaces, fresh air and stunning landscapes that rural living offers. The reality is, if we are to preserve these agricultural lands for future farms and food production, and responsibly manage population growth and urban expansion, we can’t permit rural lot severances in Ontario. It’s in everyone’s best interest to preserve our land.