A significant spike in Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) has prompted agricultural organizations and environmental groups to join forces.
“(We are) coming together with a common concern about protecting farmland, protecting green space,” said Suzanne Armstrong. “And to recognize the value of farmland in green spaces, over and against the value that’s being placed on development.”
Additionally, Armstrong said the groups question whether those values come under fair consideration when MZOs are issued.
Why it matters: MZOs override existing municipal land-use planning, putting agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands outside of the Greenbelt at risk for development.
Armstrong, director of policy and research for Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO), said the CFFO has participated in two joint letters to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark.
The first addressed Dorsay Developments’ bid to build a large new town on farmland in Carruthers Creek headwaters, bordering the Greenbelt.
The opposing groups walked away with a win after the MZO was ultimately denied, in part due to community and environmental group pressure and the Region of Durham opposing it.
The second was a joint submission to Minister Clark from CFFO, Ontario Nature, Environmental Defence Canada, National Farmers Union–Ontario and Ontario Farmland Trust asking for a reversal of current practices to issue MZOs to expedite development on farmland and natural areas.
A 2009 study commissioned by the Ministry of Natural Resources valued the benefits of farmland and natural areas at $84 billion per year in southern Ontario alone. They also contribute to flood and erosion mitigation, carbon sequestration, water purification and improved air quality, nutrient cycling, biodiversity conservation and pollination services on top of food production and vital recreational space.
All of which disappears once development moves in.
Prime farmland is in limited supply and tends to be in areas with significant development pressure, said Armstrong.
“(CFFO members and farmers) want to see strong protection on that farmland, and different tools have been put in place like the Agricultural Impact Assessment protection in the Provincial Policy Statement,” she said.
Traditionally MZOs were used by the provincial government to address emergencies, such as allowing a new grocery store to open in Elliot Lake after their only one caved in, or to advance major, provincially significant initiatives, such as the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which launched to address water quality in the lake.
Environmental Defence (ED) executive director, Tim Gray, says the current government is using MZOs not as an exception, but as a routine process to speed up controversial developments by eliminating expert analysis and public input.
“These approvals are now diving deep into areas of decision making that formerly were the responsibility of municipalities,” he said in a Nov.2, 2020 article posted on EDs website. “They include individual development proposals that may, or may not, have any support from local governments or the public.”
The article shows 104 MZOs were issued over 29 years – 33 in 2020 alone.
Aside from 2020, and 1998 when 15 MZOs were issued to develop slot machines, seasonal dwellings and guest cottages, the most prolific period occurred between 1991 and 1997 when an average of two to six MZOs were issued yearly.
Nineteen were issued in the 15 years spanning 2004 and 2019.
Of the 33 MZOs issued in 2020, 14 were for residential or mixed commercial/residential projects, and six were for industrial/commercial/logistic projects.
Gray said Minister Clark issued four in one day in April, including the approval for the destruction of three small, protected, wetlands for a large warehouse and distribution centre in Vaughan and a retirement community built on farmland in Markham and Whitchurch-Stouffville.
No room for appeal
Gray said of the seven MZOs issued in August, one was for a major development in the Caledon area. The Peel regional government strongly opposed the project, however once approved, MZOs leave no room for appeal by municipalities, citizens or environmental groups.
“We’re losing a lot of farmland just on a day-to-day basis in the province,” said Kathryn Enders, executive director, Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT). “Some of our best farmland is being paved over, and about 20 per cent of our farmland has been lost in the last 30 years.”
This past January, the OFT wrote a letter to Minister Clark expressing concerns that changes to the planning act that enhance ministerial ability to issue MZOs throughout the province could jeopardize farmland and negatively impact the provincial agricultural system.
The pandemic reinforced the importance and value of farmland in providing safe, high-quality, local food and a stable food supply chain and its value as an economic driver for Ontario’s coffers.
Protection of the land base is crucial if the agricultural sector is to remain secure, Enders said.
“The use of MZOs to convert farmland into non-agricultural uses prioritizes other economic sectors over agriculture, in the province’s COVID-19 recovery plan,” said Enders.
She said no generation would fault the province or organizations for protecting too much farmland or environmentally sensitive areas because once it’s paved-over it’s gone forever.