Farmers feel like they are “greenbelt hostages,” a town hall meeting to collect feedback on land-use policies heard Wednesday night.
The meeting was one of 16 planned to gather public information as the province reviews the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Greenbelt Plan.
In a room of approximately 300 people at the Holiday Inn on Ontario St. in St. Catharines, a show of hands revealed about half the attendees to be farmers who have issues with the Greenbelt Plan which, they say, was foisted on them by people with little knowledge of specialty crop farming in Niagara.
The province implanted the Greenbelt Plan in 2005 to curb urban sprawl and protect environmentally sensitive and agricultural lands in a swath that covers 1.8 million acres, reaching as far north as Tobermory and stretching 325 kilometres from Rice Lake to the Niagara River.
Areas of dissatisfaction expressed by Niagara’s greenbelt farmers include:
n legislation limiting land severances to those who leave remnant parcels no smaller than 40 acres;
n restrictions placed on private property that have the goal of environmental protection.
Shaun Casey, whose in-laws have a 30-acre tender fruit farm in Vineland, expressed frustration that the greenbelt does not allow the farm to be parceled out even though it is no longer a viable farm operation.
“I for the life of me can’t find an accountant that shows how a small tender fruit farmer can be economically viable,” Casey said at the outset of the meeting.
“I don’t think the greenbelt identifies … the uniqueness of the Niagara region. Twenty-, 30-, 40-acre farms are going fallow. We’re not greening the greenbelt, we’re browning the greenbelt because these businesses are going under.
“And they go under when the succession happens, and the child looks at this business and says, ‘This is not an economically viable business. I can make much more money in the city.’
“There’s a lot of people out there that should be identified in land-use planning as greenbelt hostages, because these are farmers’ widows who have properties that they can’t sell and are now economically unviable.”
The first hour was an open house, where greenbelt stakeholders could collect literature about the four land-use reviews and ask questions of provincial staff.
That was followed by table discussions on the following topics: protecting agricultural land, water and natural areas; building communities that attract workers and create jobs; keeping people and goods moving, and building cost-effective infrastructure; fostering healthy, livable and inclusive communities; addressing climate change and building resilient communities; improving implementation and better aligning the plans.
Summaries from each town hall meeting will be forwarded to an advisory panel assembled by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
It’s expected to offer recommendations for change of the land-use plans to the province by year end.
Former Niagara-on-the-Lake alderman Austin Kirkby, a tender fruit farmer for more than 50 years, is critical of the current Greenbelt Plan.
She came armed with a map showing the number of farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake with municipal drains (large ditches) and swales that greenbelt mapping deemed natural waterways. The Greenbelt Act established setbacks of 30 metres on rivers, creeks, streams and other natural waterways, meaning no development can take place within those setbacks.
“Drains are not rivers. Constructed agricultural infrastructure, that has to be removed from the Greenbelt Plan — please, if nothing else happens here,” Kirkby told the crowd in summarizing the discussion that took place at her table.
Reached Thursday morning, she said she would also like to see the minimum allowable severance reduced to 25 acres from 40.
Because it is some of the best land for growing specialty crops in the province, it has great value, she said, adding it is unaffordable for someone trying to get into farming and cost-prohibitive for existing farmers to purchase parcels of 40 acres or more.
She said there is anecdotal evidence that more and more land is being scooped up by foreign companies with deep pockets, something echoed by Phil Tregunno, a tender fruit grower from Niagara-on-the-Lake and chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers.
Tregunno said while the Greenbelt Plan has succeeded in protecting farmland, more and more often that land is being scooped up by international buyers.
“Our big point is to make sure that farmers own farmland, that it doesn’t go to developers,” said Tregunno, speaking for the tender fruit producers, in a recent interview.
“They’ve protected the greenbelt, but they really haven’t addressed the fact that non-residents of Canada are buying land in Niagara … effectively turning farmers into tenant farmers. You’ve protected the land, but you haven’t really protected it to keep it as farmland for farmers to own their own land.”
According to Tregunno, approximately 40% of farmland in Niagara is rental land.
He also has a problem with the land-use restrictions imposed on farmers as a result of the Greenbelt Plan.
“What we are going to be presenting to the (review panel) are (issues with) setbacks and things like that that restrict the use of our farmland from historic farm use,” he said, explaining new setbacks from streams and watercourses could mean new farm buildings being constructed far from existing clusters of buildings, compromising efficiency.
“We certainly don’t want to see any more restrictions put on, because effectively if you put on large setbacks, particularly in the Niagara area where there’s lots of creeks and streams running through farms, it really amounts to expropriation without compensation.
“Your equity disappears because you’re not able to use your land properly.”
Bill Hodgson, a former mayor of the Town of Lincoln and current regional councillor and retired tender fruit grower, said in a recent interview the Greenbelt Plan needs to “inject the human aspect — the fact the greenbelt is a living, working landscape.”
“If you look at the plan, they don’t really acknowledge that farmers exist,” Hodgson said.
“The plan only speaks to farmland, and it only speaks to the things you can and can’t do on farmland.
“The Greenbelt Plan is really a growth-limiting tool. It’s intended to basically enshrine urban boundaries so they are not going to be continually expanding. And as a planning tool, it’s very effective. There’s no question, it’s a very powerful planning tool on that sort of macro level.
“But what’s missing and what is needed is within the implementing rules that govern the greenbelt and the uses that can go on in the greenbelt. What is required is a new acknowledgement that there needs to be a priority placed on the economic activity of farming.”
Hodgson said it needs to be recognized that best farming practices, such as tile draining land, provide ecological benefits.
“There are the purists who would like to return all of the features to their natural state, but we can’t do that,” he said.
Hodgson said best farming practices are being undermined by a “whole host” of restrictive environmental policies.
He gave as an example the setbacks from intermittent creeks.
“The implication is that these creeks are supposed to be re-naturalized, well those creeks are part of the drainage system that make farming possible. So the suggestion of re-naturalizing wildlife corridors and waterway corridors well beyond where they are still naturalized, way back from the top of the bank — that whole notion is just inconsistent, and it’s a constant threat.
“There’s something entirely disheartening about a government plan that basically says the farm community knows nothing about the environment and so we have to put in place all these rules that restrict what they do,” Hodgson said.
He said farming has made monumental leaps in environmental protection since the days of his youth on the family farm.
“If I think about the practices that we do today on our farm compared to the 1950s when I was growing up, it’s amazing all of the incredible, beneficial environmental practices that we’ve introduced,” he said.
“It’s green around here because for the last 100 or 200 years, farm families have been operating their farms. They have been stewards of woodlots and hedgerows … but to be a modern farmer, there are certain features of a natural environment that are inconsistent with having a crop.”
As an example, Hogdson said, there are pests and diseases dangerous to crops that can be “stored” in naturalized areas.
“We don’t want to wipe out all the naturalized areas, but when you start saying your policy is to re-naturalize every feature, well that puts farming at risk. So what is it, is our objective to turn Niagara’s greenbelt into a park or are we anxious to make sure we have a safe and reliable food supply?
“I would argue the safe and reliable food supply should be the top priority.”
The Greenbelt Plan “language is urban, and it should have been rural. It should have been owned by the farm community, but it’s basically being driven out of Toronto. These environmental lobbies that are located and operate out of Toronto don’t really have any stake, so they can be rather preachy, and they can be bossy with assets that they don’t own. The Greenbelt Plan should acknowledge at the very least that it’s the owners of the properties that have the most important stake.
“And the provincial benefits are derived from the people who work, live and play here,” Hodgson said.
Burkhard Mausberg, the chief executive officer of the Friends of the Greenbelt, “a charitable grant-making organization working to help keep farmers successful, strengthen local economies, and protect and grow natural features,” attended the town hall meeting in St. Catharines.
He said he heard loud and clear the concerns of farmers, but that many of their issues are not a result of the Greenbelt Plan.
He said Thursday afternoon that a study his organization commissioned in 2013 revealed “95% of the issues the farmers had with the greenbelt were nothing to do with the greenbelt. It had to do with municipal planning rules or municipal enforcement issues or something completely different, not the greenbelt.”
“I have found in Niagara that the greenbelt continues, for some farmers, to be the lightning rod for everything they have to deal with,” Mausberg said.
He said the process of review that will take place over the coming year will address the concerns of farmers.
“What we say to folks like Austin Kirkby, is take the greenbelt-specific concerns that you have and bring them to the attention of the government. That’s why it was great Austin and her husband were there (Wednesday). It was great that Austin held up the map and showed what the implications of setbacks were. That’s exactly what this process is meant to be.
“What I have a problem with is categorical blame of the greenbelt for everything that’s being done to agriculture. That’s simply not true.”
Mausberg cited taxation and measures related to the protection of endangered species as two issues in which blame is often directed at the Greenbelt Plan.
He said he was sympathetic to Kirkby’s complaint that municipal drains were mapped as natural waterways.
“It doesn’t make any sense. I totally agree with Austin that if it’s an artificially built draining ditch that has water in it for three weeks a year, that it shouldn’t be called an important waterway,” Mausberg said.
“I know that wasn’t the intent of the greenbelt, to prohibit putting up farm buildings near drainage ditches.”
However, he said, the provision in the Greenbelt Plan that set 30-metre buffer zones from the edges of natural waterways is a good one.
“You need to protect the riverbank … to allow proper functioning of the creek,” he said.
“The original intent of the greenbelt to protect that river is a good one.”
As for naturalized areas on farms such as woodlots and wetlands, Mausberg said he is firmly behind their preservation, despite concerns from farmers those areas may harbour pests and wildlife detrimental to farming.
“It has important ecological functions. We’ve lost a lot of those in this part of the world in the last 150 years, and wouldn’t want to lose anymore.”