FARMLAND EASEMENT AGREEMENTS: A LANDOWNER’S TOOL FOR PERMANENTLY PROTECTING FARMLAND IN ONTARIO
Ontario’s farmland is an essential resource in Canada. Farmland helps shape our identity and provides Canadians with a sense of place. The unfortunate reality is that Ontario currently loses 175 acres of farmland a day (Statistics Canada, 2016). This rate of farmland loss is unsustainable and increased efforts are necessary to establish an equitable balance in Ontario’s long-term environmental, social, and economic interests.
A major threat to farmland in Ontario is urban sprawl. Southern Ontario alone is home to one-third of Canada’s population yet also has the majority of Canada’s Class 1 agricultural land. The lack of firm urban boundaries within policy allows for continued settlement area expansion and development that impedes on rural communities, viable agricultural land, and environmental features.
The majority of our best farmland is within the Greater Golden Horseshoe and this land is vital to the food security of the Province as well as this country. However, there is an increasing concern that productive agricultural land is being lost to land grabbing, large-scale development, and investor acquisition. These issues disrupt the integrity and viability of agricultural communities, the farm economy, and agricultural ecosystems. Land use planning can do more to protect this critical resource.
The Greenbelt currently protects 856,000 acres of prime agricultural farmland from urban development (Friends of the Greenbelt, 2017). However, areas outside of the Greenbelt could benefit from improved land use planning policies and regulations to better protect farmland. These mechanisms include stronger regulations on developers, consistency with land classification maps, implementing direct zoning restrictions, and the increased use of easement agreements.
The Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT) focuses on direct land protection through farmland easement agreements and policy development for improved farmland protection. These efforts are part of OFT’s mandate to protect and preserve our best farmlands.
OFT’s policy efforts have included providing recommendations to government on the Coordinated Land Use Planning Review, Agricultural System Mapping, as well as leading a collaborative submission with other major agricultural organizations in support of introducing firm and permanent urban boundaries. OFT’s policy work reflects the need to differentiate between urban and rural areas and establish policies and mechanisms that can protect the integrity of Ontario’s agricultural land.
OFT’s farmland securement efforts are critical to protecting farmland for long-term agricultural use. OFT is the only organization with a province-wide mandate to protect and preserve our best farmlands. Farmland easement agreements are one tool that farmers can use to protect their land.
What exactly is a farmland easement agreement? It is a permanent and lasting legal contract enabled by the Conservation Land Act between a willing property owner and an easement-holding organization, such as OFT, which is registered on title in perpetuity. Each agreement can be tailored to the land protection interests and needs of each farmer and can be applied to the entire property or a portion of it. These agreements include provisions to protect farmland and maintain uses on the property that are compatible with agriculture. Important natural areas on the property can also be protected to help promote wildlife corridors and linkages.
The property will be assessed by OFT staff and external third parties such as ecologists, appraisers, and surveyors. This is to determine and differentiate between the agricultural, natural, and residential uses on the property. The agreement includes restrictions that are developed cooperatively between the property owner and organization to ensure a shared vision for long-term farmland protection.
The easement agreement ensures that the property owner maintains ownership and the right to sell the land. It constitutes a long-term relationship between the owner and organization to maintain the specified conditions, however it will never restrict normal farm practices on the property. It also does not require planning approvals from the government. Farmland easement agreements can impact property value and the appraisal is conducted to measure any potential reduction in market value. If there is a negative impact on land value, the farm owner is compensated with a charitable tax receipt for the difference in value.
Farmland easement agreements are a strong mechanism that can be used to protect Ontario farmland forever. They support normal farm practices and ensure that agricultural land is protected from urban sprawl and development. Easement agreements provide farmers with security in their long-term investment and use of the land. They are one mechanism that should continue to be utilized and better recognized within land use policy to ensure the protection of our critical agricultural resource in Ontario.