Guelph-based farmland belief says safety wanted

In the wake of Bill 23, the executive director of Ontario Farmland Trust said there’s other ways to approach housing development

The Ford government’s passing of Bill 23, which they said is intended to spur housing development, isn’t sitting well with the head of the not-for-profit Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT).

The province said the bill is part of a plan to build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years. About 18,000 of those homes are allocated to Guelph.

A big sticking point for critics is a move to open up some protected Greenbelt land for development. Critics also take issue with the freezing, reducing and exempting of fees paid by developers.

OFT executive director Martin Straathof called it a “regression of our current planning processes.”

The OFT, based out of the University of Guelph, said it believes it will “significantly reduce protections for farmland in the provincial land use planning,” making way for “sprawling development instead of sustainable communities.”

There’s no argument development needs to happen, said Straathof.

But he added there’s other ways to approach it, and we need to also think about other necessities of life: food, water and clean air.

“We’re sacrificing something like farmland, that helps provide three of those basic necessities. The fourth, then, being shelter,” Straathof told GuelphToday.

“We need to find some innovative solutions to be able to provide shelter while still protecting this critical resource of farmland.”

He said the bill goes beyond that, covering wetlands and other forested areas too.

He said there needs to be a level of protection so all our basic necessities are met for this, and future generations.

Straathof said there’s a notion if we can keep pushing out onto farmland, we can get our food from elsewhere.

But he added we have to start asking where “elsewhere” is.

“We can’t just start growing food on the Canadian Shield,” Straathof said. “We don’t have the soil, we don’t have the micro-climate. Even if we want to put greenhouses up there, there’s going to be an amount of energy that we would need to consume in order to keep those greenhouses well enough for the growing conditions.”

He said internationally, we do get a lot from the United States, but he pointed out the US has lost 11 million acres of farmland between 2001 and 2016, or about 2,000 acres of land per day.

That, on top of trade disruptions due to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, flooding and droughts, Straathof said if we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves and more disruptions happen around the world, “we’ve kind of pulled the rug from underneath ourselves.”

In Ontario, a release from the OFT notes the province has lost nearly 20 per cent of its farmland in the last 35 years. And with the increased rate of farmland loss, the release said the 11.8 million acres of farmland today “will be gone within the next 100 years.”

Straathof pointed out as well when farmland is developed and paved over, it can’t be reverted back.

“There’s a number of different items coming out of Bill 23 that are going to cause some complications for the agricultural sector,” he said.

OFT said it sent eight written submissions, and is one of many who argued against Bill 23.

From here, Straathof said pressure still needs to be put on the government to hear concerns.

In a statement, Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie also called on the province to put a pause on the implementation of the controversial bill. He said working alongside municipal governments and other stakeholders “will only produce the Team Ontario approach the Premier often talks about to build the homes needed.”

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario add changes could leave municipalities short as much as $5 billion, leaving taxpayers to pay more, whether that be in property taxes or service cuts.

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