‘We will not be moving forward’: farmland severance proposal dropped by province

Reversal on proposed policy 'a huge relief' for agricultural organizations, farmers

WELLINGTON COUNTY – The province is backing away from a proposed policy change that would have opened Ontario’s prime agricultural land to housing development.

“We will not be moving forward with the proposal on rural lot severances,” municipal affairs and housing spokesperson Melissa Diakoumeas confirmed to the Advertiser on June 2.

The provincial government released a range of proposed planning policy changes in April to support its push to create “housing-supportive” policy and build 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

Contained within those changes was new policy that would have permitted farmland to be severed and developed as residential, estate-size lots.

Local politicians at the municipal level were indignant, feeling the province was attacking long-standing policy protecting farmland on a political whim.

Planning staff across Wellington, baffled at the sudden change in direction, scrambled to interpret what the potential implications would be on the county’s rural communities before the province’s June 5 deadline for feedback.

That commenting deadline has since been extended to Aug. 4, biding time not only for additional feedback, but also for the province to figure out what it’s doing between now and the fall, when a new provincial planning policy statement is expected to be released.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), an agricultural lobbying group representing 38,000 farm members across the province, has loudly opposed allowing for farmland severances since potential ramifications became known.

A May 18 joint statement — signed by 11 agricultural lobbying organizations, including the OFA, as well as commodity marketing groups — raised the alarm, stating the government would be putting farmland “at great risk” with “intergenerational implications” for farmers, food security, water resources and the economy.

As the Advertiser reported last month, Wellington County planning staff suggested farmland could be sliced up to form at least 12,000 lots for residential development, and the Wellington Federation of Agriculture (WFA) suggested 27,478 acres of farmland could be taken out of production.

On May 24 and 25, OFA president Peggy Brekveld and vice president Drew Spoelstra met with Premier Doug Ford’s office.

Writing to Brekveld and Spoelstra on May 29, housing minister Steve Clark sought to position the government’s policy as a response to the “many farmers” who asked the province to make it “easier for the next generation to live and work in the same place where they grew up.”

“At the same time, we have clearly heard the concerns that have been raised about the need to preserve Ontario’s farmland,” Clark wrote.

He added the government will “look at alternatives that would assist farm families in succession planning, but do not involve additional severances.”

“Any ambiguity regarding our intentions will be clarified, eliminated and resolved,” he stated.

‘A huge relief’

Reached by phone on June 2, WFA president Janet Harrop took a break from her dairy operation to say the news is “a huge relief.”

“Those that are actively farming recognize that lot severances are really destructive for primary agriculture,” she said.

Severances aren’t feasible and don’t address the need of most people for affordable and attainable housing, Harrop asserted, adding severed lots “never end up in the hands of family or extended family.”

She suggested only those without succession plans at the end of their farming careers were supportive of the policy.

But in those cases, she said, “short-term economic gain” would only lead to “long-term functional pain.”

Conservative MPPs hear from constituents

Perth-Wellington MPP Matthew Rae, who is Clark’s parliamentary assistant, stated in an email his office received “a number of phone calls and emails” about the proposed changes “on both sides of the debate.”

Rae didn’t directly answer a question from the Advertiser about whether he provided any comments to Clark speaking specifically to how proposed changes might affect agriculture and rural communities, but said he endeavours to share constituents’ concerns with ministers.

Rae also didn’t directly answer a question about whether or not he supported the policy.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Wellington County and understand the importance of our agricultural land,” he wrote.

Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott said in an email his office “received a lot of feedback on this issue.”

Arnott declined to say if he supported the proposed policy, saying as House Speaker he cannot publicly comment on matters under consideration at Queen’s Park.

“I speak privately to MPPs, and still ensure that the voices of our constituents are heard,” Arnott wrote.

He added there have been a “number of meetings, conversations and correspondence” on the issue between him and county politicians and staff.

‘Self-inflicted policy wreck’

Agriculture critic and Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof told the newspaper he remains “somewhat mystified that neither the minister of agriculture, nor the rural Conservative members, seemed to be able to solve this internally before it became so public.”

“This was an obvious, self-inflicted policy wreck,” he remarked.

Vanthof doubts the government’s commitment, saying the premier had only pressed pause – “Now we have to convince him to push delete.”

Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner stated in an email the Ford administration has a “sprawl-at-all-costs agenda” with no interest in protecting food and farming.

“Thanks to farmers’ strong action … the government has seemingly dropped their plan to allow lot severances on farms,” Schreiner stated.

“Hopefully they’ll stay true to their word.”

OFA general manager Cathy Lennon told the Advertiser on June 2 that Brekveld had since spoken with the premier and is “happy with the direction conversations are going.”

Lennon said the organization can now begin addressing concerns it has with other proposed changes.

“We’ll be able to do so with the confidence that additional severances are off the table,” she said.