Some members of Ontario's agricultural and conservation communities do not think the provincial government is taking urban sprawl seriously enough. They say current provincial land development policy is detrimental to farmland, natural heritage and Ontario's future.
On the farm side, the rate at which land is being lost to housing and other developments is due in part to the provincial government's approach to Municipal Zoning Orders (MZOs) – orders which, when issued by the Minister of Municipal Affairs, override local bylaws and existing council decision-making processes.
Why it matters: MZOs issued by the province override established municipal development plans. The current government has issued high numbers of such orders, exacerbating urban sprawl.
Developers can appeal to the minister for an MZO and when successful, they get a green light for development regardless of local bylaws.
According to Mark Reusser, vice-president for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the ability to circumvent long-standing planning procedures, which were developed with substantial input from the agriculture sector, cheapens the entire process.
He says the government has made it clear no application will be rejected if it comes from municipalities. However, that places the burden of decision on elected councillors, who may inadvertently circumvent the planning processes of their own municipality.
"Why would any applicant want to go through the whole planning process when they can appeal directly to the ministry and presumably save time?" says Reusser.
"The minister has chosen to allow any municipality to circumvent their own planning process at any time."
MZOs are not new and were traditionally used during emergencies or by municipalities with little infrastructure or on-the-ground governing systems. Historically, two to four MZOs would be issued each year.
Since the province changed its stance, however, dozens have been issued. Reusser says there is potential for MZOs in the hundreds, a frightening prospect considering the best farmland in the province is largely centred in southwestern Ontario, where development pressure is most acute.
"We're building houses in the wrong place and losing 175 acres per day every day," he says in reference to Statistics Canada data. "Is this sustainable? OFA would submit that it is not."
COVID act affected conservation efforts
Conservation Ontario, which represents conservation authorities across the province, also have cause for concern from provisions in the government's Bill 229, the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID Act.
Passed in December 2020, the bill contained a clause that removed the ability of conservation authorities to veto MZOs.
Developers and associated supporters within council can appeal directly to the minister for a final go-ahead should they be confronted by an initial veto from the local conservation authority.
If that approval happens to overlay sensitive wetlands or flood plain areas, for example, the local conservation authority has no ability to appeal.
Other recent changes to conservation policy could affect many conservation areas, including standards for recreational activities, staffing and other aspects of day-to-day operations.
In its recommendations to the province, Conservation Ontario says "many conservation authorities will require time and money to implement the new requirements. Flexibility is appropriate with regard to the details of how and when these are to be prepared and their scope to allow for regional variations and to assist in limiting implementation costs."
Other recommendations are detailed on Conservation Ontario's website. When contacted directly, the organization would not provide comment on the impact such changes could have on conservation areas.
From Reusser's perspective, the fundamental problem with current land development policy is a lack of long-term vision.
Establishing industry and homes for people is important and necessary, he acknowledged, but outward expansion is removing prime farmland while ensuring municipalities will have higher infrastructure costs in decades to come.
Yet one of the most effective ways for municipalities to quickly generate cash to address such costs is to again expand.
"It's almost a pyramid scheme," says Reusser. "We need better planning and intensification. Build cities which go up rather than out. It's the only alternative unless it goes somewhere other than on top of prime farmland."
Reusser cites the Waterloo region as an example of successful long-term urban planning. By establishing a firm no-build line in 1972 and mandating 60 per cent of all new housing must be within the existing urban footprint, the city has grown without encroaching on surrounding countryside in the same manner as London, Brampton and other metropolitan locales.
"The urban footprint in Waterloo region is equivalent to one township. There are five townships overall but only one is urban. If the population density there was the same as Denver, Houston … the urban footprint would include six additional townships. That's the difference good planning makes," says Reusser.
"MZOs circumvent that process. Ontario has a choice to make."
Reusser says the OFA is pushing for municipal planning that looks beyond standard time frames.
"The government says official plans go to 2051, but is that long enough? It's kind of death by 1,000 cuts. OFA's recommendation is, let's do some real long-term planning here. Do we as citizens want to have the capacity to produce food on farmland?
"If we want to be able to do that, we have to plan for it today… It's a decision which needs to be made by citizens and the government."