Ministers’ orders could mean faster development of farmland

CFFO says new powers could reduce local input into land use changes

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Updated Sept. 11, 2020

The COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act is already a matter of concern for some agricultural communities in the Region of Durham as well as the Town of Ajax.

The bill, passed in the Ontario legislature on July 21 gives ministers broader powers to override local planning, which could put more farmland at risk.

In Pickering, for example, the local council has requested a Minister’s Zoning Order to expedite a large residential development on the Carruthers Creek headwaters, requiring no consultation and allowing no hope of appeal.

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Why it matters: Significant farmland is lost every year to urban development and the ability to issue zoning orders could accelerate that process.

Bill 197 was an omnibus bill that brought changes to a laundry list of existing legislation in a bid to stimulate the economy in the wake of the current pandemic, including the beefing up of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO).

A MZO allows the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to issue zoning orders, usually only in remote areas where there is no local municipality with established planning and zoning capacity. In the past, they were rarely invoked in areas where a municipality with such capacity has jurisdiction.

With the MZO as a resort, the developer can pursue the Pickering project that Suzanne Armstrong, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) director of research and policy, says endangers top-quality Class 1 farmland and sensitive environmental headwaters.

Suzanne Armstrong.
photo: Courtesy Suzanne Armstrong

“My primary understanding is that the province is trying to use it as a tool to move projects ahead faster and boost the economic recovery,” Armstrong said.

Invoking the MZO not only expedites the process, she said, but also leaps over concerns that have been expressed.

Where established processes exist, Armstrong said, people are accustomed to working within that framework, “which does, I am sure, take longer. But people know how to engage, and they have the opportunity.

“Now there’s this other process, which is unfamiliar.”

Pickering Deputy Mayor Kevin Ashe was quoted in DurhamRegion.com calling the MZO request a way to kickstart the process after the developer cited slowdowns to accommodate a municipal comprehensive review process and a full Carruthers Creek watershed study. Resorting to the MZO could cut years off the process, the developer argued, creating jobs and completing new homes much sooner.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, however, says it has no intension of using an MZO in the Carruthers Creek situation. In a statement to Farmtario, the ministry said:

“While the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is aware of the Carruther’s Creek Watershed request, we can have no intention of using an MZO to facilitate development in this area. We will not be issuing an MZO for the Carruther’s Creek Watershed. We remain committed to protecting the Greenbelt for future generations.” 

Citing the increase in MZOs, Ontario Farmland Trust executive director Kathryn Enders has written to Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark to call for a return to using MZOs only in certain specific circumstances as originally designed.

“Agricultural land is the base of the agri-food sector, and it is a finite resource,” Enders wrote.

“In order to preserve the viability of Ontario’s agri-food sector, it is crucial that the province’s finite supply of agricultural land is protected.”

Agriculture’s economic clout relies on the very limited resource of productive farmland, she said. And properties with Class 1 soil (like the land involved in the Pickering project) make up only 0.5 per cent of Canada’s agricultural soil.

In one sense, Armstrong said, putting more time into the process between initial application and shovels-in-the-ground (as opposed to opting for an MZO shortcut) is the essence of democracy, offering time for a thorough examination of the proposed land use in relation to community concerns. This includes vetting by the agricultural community, whose concerns would include the preservation and stewardship of farmland — one of the key missions of the CFFO.

As more municipalities consider implementing an MZO, Armstrong urges the farming community to be vigilant, have discussions on the implications, and raise concerns with their municipalities, their MPPs and the ministry.

“Stewardship is one of the roles for a farm organization, and one of the concerns is the land use and planning process and how it can be used to protect productive farmland,” she said.

“We are concerned about protecting farmland into the future.”

Updated Sept. 11, 2020 to include Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing response to the Carruthers Creek situation.

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