Policy can be a really effective tool for farmland protection. However, to be effective, policies need to be strong and they need to work together. That is why the Ontario Farmland Trust regularly gives feedback on changes that are proposed to Provincial policies that impact farmland.
Policies are like cogs in a big ‘Farmland Protection Machine.’ All policies are connected and one weak or poorly designed one can make the whole machine run poorly. Making sure that all policies are strong is incredibly important, because this ensures that the ‘Farmland Protection Machine’ continues to effectively protect agricultural land.
Before we can really understand how provincial policy affects farmland, we need to learn a bit about what these policies actually are. Understanding the ins and outs of policies can be a challenge, and understanding how one policy can impact another is no exception. To give you a better idea of how these policies interact, we have given a simplified example of how low development charges affect the Growth Plan, Greenbelt Plan, and farmland loss.
Please note: This is a simplified example for explanatory purposes
Development Charges, Land-Use Policies, & Farmland Loss in the Greater Golden Horseshoe
What are development charges?
Developers pay development charges to the government for land development projects. They help to pay for new infrastructure like water and sewage services.
OFT believes that development charges for urban sprawl should reflect the true cost of building new infrastructure to service new areas.
Building in previously developed areas is cheaper than sprawling into undeveloped areas (like farmland), as those areas already have the infrastructure to support development. If development charges are accurate and reflect the true cost of new infrastructure for sprawling development, then those charges can influence where development occurs. Currently, development charges do not reflect these costs.
Development Charges & the Growth Plan
Development charges also directly affect how, and if, municipalities achieve the policies laid out in the Growth Plan.
The Growth Plan is a set of policies that affect how and where municipalities grow in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Growth Plan is really big, so to keep things simple we will focus on three components that affect farmland protection: Intensification Targets, Density Targets, and Boundary Expansions.
Intensification Targets are set for each municipality to intensify development in urban areas that already have the needed infrastructure. They protect farmland by directing growth to already built-up areas.
Intensification Targets could be easier to meet if development charges reflected the true cost of sprawl. This would give financial incentive to maximize the use of pre-existing infrastructure and minimize the amount of development in new areas. Unfortunately, many municipalities are not meeting their targets, and this means more urban sprawl and more farmland loss.
Density Targets are also set for each municipality. They increase the density of housing in new areas, which maximizes the use of new infrastructure. They protect farmland by minimizing sprawl and concentrating new development into smaller areas.
Density Targets could be more easily met if development charges reflected the true cost of sprawl. This would give financial incentive to maximize the use of new infrastructure and build homes densely. Again, many municipalities are not meeting their target. And again, this means more urban sprawl and farmland loss.
Municipal Boundary Expansions are meant to increase the amount of land that can be developed within a municipality. Municipal Boundary Expansions are a major threat to farmland because they often occur on farmland. Farmland which can then be paved over and lost forever. These expansions should be treated as a last resort.
However, Boundary Expansions can be avoided if Intensification and Density Targets are met or exceeded. Research shows that municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe have plenty of land within current boundaries for the next twenty or more years1, yet expansions are still occurring.
The Greenbelt is designed to be a band of permanently protected agricultural and natural land. The Greenbelt is a very effective and strong policy that prevents non-agricultural development on farmland. However, the more that urban development encroaches on the Greenbelt boundary as a result of the failure of the above policies, the more the pressure will be placed on the Greenbelt as a last line of defence. Protecting our farmland should not rest on the shoulders of a single plan.
Of course, our summary is simplified. There are many policies at play other than the ones listed above. However, when we are able to see the connections between different policies we can also see how changes in one policy can affect others. Ontario needs a host of strong policies that work together in order to protect our farmland for future generations.