The natural heritage debate

Provincial land use direction continues to raise concerns with farmers who haven't been consulted

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Farmers are worried that a change in the designation of their land to “natural heritage” will affect their ability to farm in the future.

Farmers in Huron County are the latest to struggle with the designation of some of their land as “natural heritage”.

Why it matters: The ability of farmers to cultivate land they haven’t used for several years could be limited by a natural heritage designation, which could affect the profitability of land.

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“Tampering with such a large economic engine may have severely disabling results if (the nature of that tampering is) not considered beforehand,” said John Swartzentruber, a Brussels area farmer in a presentation to Huron County council earlier this year. Huron County is the largest agriculture production county in Ontario by farm gate receipts. Swartzentruber is part of the informal Huron Group of landowners working against the change.

Those farmers, who know about the process, have often found that pastures and other areas that have been overgrown for short periods of time have been included as natural heritage after a review by the local conservation authority.

Huron County is just the latest to go through the natural heritage designation process, as the province’s first guidance on the topic came out a decade ago. It is just now arriving in areas like Huron and Bruce counties as municipal official plans are updated.

No new powers will be afforded to Huron County or lower-tier municipalities through this process, says Jim Ginn, a farmer and Huron County’s warden. It will remain up to the discretion of the lower-tier townships whether or not the principles within the proposed plan are eventually turned into policy – through which they become entrenched in planning documentation such as the Official Plan – or if they serve simply as part of “a reference document” to be considered while making planning decisions.

The only thing that’s really new in Huron’s case, Ginn adds, is a planned update of zoning maps. “And I see no link between updating mapping and taking land out of agricultural production.”

The most recent information report prepared by Huron County staff – requested, according to Ginn, as a way of bringing up to speed the lower-tier politicians who only recently joined council following last fall’s election – lists some “options” (stopping short of identifying “recommendations” to be voted on by Council) for navigating further into what is obviously a potentially controversial process.

Rural areas closer to cities have dealt with natural heritage designation earlier than areas with more farms.
photo: DebraLeeWiseberg/iStock/Getty Images

The first on the list is to get rid of the “Natural Heritage” terminology passed down by the province over a decade ago, and instead refer to the new document as the “Natural Environment Update for Huron County.”

Ginn sees wisdom in giving Huron’s document a different title than what has been used elsewhere. “(Heritage) was a provincial term. For me, with what it represents in this case, it’s really quite interchangeable with the term ‘natural environment.’ And I think the problem with using ‘heritage’ is that some people have perceived it as something new.”

The Huron Group disagrees. The unknown implications of targets cause concern.

The group says the natural heritage plan will drive changes to the designation and utility of vast areas of Huron County Class 1 farmland. Reaching the target of almost 20 per cent more forest cover will mean retiring arable land, it claims.

“There are not enough other poorer acres. Also, these targets do not include the effects of restricting the farming activities in the incumbent buffer zones along watercourses and other natural features, as already mapped out. Buffer zones are of major concern as they have elsewhere been regulated back to natural cover,” the groups said in its report to county council.

Ginn believes the reservations expressed by the Huron Group stem, to a significant degree, in misinterpretations of the proposed document’s inclusion of forest cover, wetland, and buffer zone target percentages. He stresses these percentages are taken either from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) or a “technical document” provided by the ministry to guide municipalities as they undertake Natural Heritage Planning. Municipalities are not required to reach those targets, he said.

Indeed, in the case of buffer strips along waterways, Huron County specifically opted not to extend the recommended distance to 120 metres – the distance previously advised for “Provincially Significant Wetlands” and now suggested for all waterways by the PPS – and left its number at the previously existing 50 metres.

Areas closer to urban centres and with more sensitive natural areas have been through the process long ago.

Farmer input matters

Town of Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson farms south of Terra Cotta and was recently named chair of the Rural Caucus of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). Living and working within a larger municipality, the Region of Peel, that has seen its share of discussion over preserving Peel’s location at the juncture of the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Niagara Escarpment, and the Greater Toronto Area’s Greenbelt, so full of natural heritage areas.

Thompson told Farmtario recently that he has observed numerous jurisdictions across the province move to and beyond the stage Huron County now faces. He said the success rate has been mixed.

His own region, he says, established itself as a leader not only by being one of the first to begin work to heed the province’s call to incorporate natural heritage into its planning documentation starting in 2007, but also by going the extra mile to get the consultation process right. For this, he gives credit largely to Region of Peel Manager of Research and Analysis Mark Head, but also to organizations that worked with the municipalities to aid and participate in those consultations, including the local federation of agriculture and soil and crop improvement association, as well as the Credit Valley Conservation Authority.

As other Greater Toronto Area municipalities followed Peel Region’s lead in incorporating natural heritage principles into their governance, Thompson recalls identifying shortfalls that later developed into major roadblocks.

In neighbouring Halton Region, he said, municipal staff “never consulted with farmers” in creating an initial natural heritage plan. The Huron-Perth Landowners Association, as part of its ongoing efforts to influence Huron County’s current natural heritage planning consultation, hosted an information meeting this past winter at which former Halton Region dairy farmers Joan and Murray Harris outlined what they described as ever-increasing limitations on their freedom as property owners as a result of Halton Region’s efforts. The result, Thompson reported, was a successful challenge of the process spearheaded by the Halton Federation of Agriculture.

In the Niagara Region, meanwhile, Thompson suggests the local conservation authority did not “find a way to work through the needs of the farm community” and was, as a result, “challenged” to fulfill its role in the process. In Peel Region and further north and west, he credits Credit Valley Conservation, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority with taking a more nuanced approach to their involvement in natural heritage planning.

He cautions municipal politicians not to give anything less than a full consideration of concerns raised by agricultural stakeholders. As a farmer sitting on municipal council at the time natural heritage was first being rolled out from downtown Toronto, his immediate thought was that they needed to consult with the people who are currently the stewards of the land – in many cases, the farmers.

So he was among those who worked to ensure farm organizations had representation at the Region of Peel back in 2007. He’s a former president of the Peel Federation of Agriculture, and has also served with the Peel Region Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

In its initial version, Thompson suggests, the provincial planning statement saw a cornfield in a similar fashion to “virgin forest.” That didn’t last long, he says, due to input from the agricultural community.

In the Region of Peel, he recalls, “we ground-truthed it. We went out and we walked the land. If the farmer was practicing agriculture, we left them alone . . . We wanted to make sure the farmer was protected.”

A representative for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing declined to comment on the ongoing Huron County process, but it did outline the levels of authority afforded under provincial legislation.

“Municipalities exercise land use authority through the framework set in the Planning Act and set out their own objectives and policies in their official plans, which control how they will grow and develop.”

The MMAH response also stipulates that an application to change the designation on any piece of land can be brought forward to the municipality by any party, including the municipality itself. There’s no requirement to notify the affected landowner, although there is an avenue of appeal once a change is made through the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

And regarding another of the Huron Group’s concerns, “the PPS (provincial policy statements) policies do not speak to economic impact when identifying Natural Heritage systems.”

In Huron County earliest approval of a final document wouldn’t come until the end of 2019, and from there the potential exists that it will become part of the lower-tier townships’ planning rules only as they conduct their required-every-five-years Official Plan updates.

Already, Howick Township has agreed to notify any landowner who potentially has the designation of property change as a result of the mapping exercise. This is in keeping with a letter sent by lower-tier Council by the Huron County Federation of Agriculture.

Ginn says the potential certainly exists for other lower-tier Councils to follow Howick’s lead.

About the author


Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.



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