Wellington-Halton Hills candidates talk about farming concerns at OFA debate

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Farmers have a lot of concerns going into the provincial election and they got the chance to raise them with Wellington-Halton Hills candidates at a debate on May 18.

Hosted jointly by the Wellington and Halton branches of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the debate was held virtually and only the four main parties were invited.

Wellington OFA president Janet Harrop moderated the debate and said organizers discussed who to include.

“We wanted to stick to the main parties,” she said. “We wanted to target discussion on agriculture.

“It’s not to exclude anybody.”

So it was Progressive Conservative incumbent Ted Arnott, Liberal candidate Tom Takacs and NDP candidate Diane Ballantyne who fielded questions during the 90-minute event.

Green party candidate Ryan Kahro sent her regrets.

Questions were compiled by the two organizations with input from the broader membership.

Some got very specific but broadly they covered land use planning, infrastructure deficits in rural areas, and the controversial Highway 413, the proposed route for which will cut through agricultural land and sensitive wetlands in Halton, Peel and York regions.

Land use planning

Harrop asked how each candidate would balance urban growth with preserving farmland.

Takacs said the Liberals will limit urban sprawl and allow municipalities discretion on determining height and density within urban limits.

He said he’d cancel Bill 109, the More Homes for Everyone Act, that gives more power to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and the Ontario Land Tribunal to override municipal planning and zoning decisions.

“The Ontario Land Tribunal can bypass municipal planning decisions,” Takacs said. “Local municipalities are best to plan growth in our communities.”

Ballantyne said the NDP would stop urban sprawl by increasing density and removing exclusionary zoning. While there is a housing crisis and building needs to be done, it should not take over farmland or disregard local planning decisions, she said.

“Farmland is a non-renewable resource,” said Ballantyne. “2,000 acres of farmland was lost under (Premier Doug) Ford. Ford has no respect for the importance of farmland.”

Arnott said 175 acres of farmland is lost every day to urban growth and agreed it’s a serious concern.

But it’s also a delicate balance that requires working with municipalities on land use planning, encouraging density to handle growth and advocating for the preservation of farmland, he said.

“We need to preserve the best quality farmland,” Arnott said. “But we need long-term planning to ensure infrastructure is in place.”

Infrastructure deficits

Harrop listed roads, bridges, natural gas, electricity and broadband internet as infrastructure systems that create barriers for farmers when they are not in place. She asked the candidates what they would do about it.

Arnott acknowledged that rural communities have a smaller tax base and therefore a harder time paying for infrastructure projects.

“In many cases rural municipalities don’t have the tax base to support infrastructure projects,” he said, adding he worked with the Town of Erin on the wastewater treatment plant to get that project going for that very reason.

“Municipal/provincial finances are extremely complex, and we need to review that whole relationship.”

Takacs said the Liberals would have full service broadband internet across the province by 2025.

Ballantyne said the NDP will reverse cuts to the Municipal Partnership Fund imposed by Ford and restore stable funding municipalities for infrastructure projects.

“We need a new deal for municipalities – stable, reliable, no-surprises funding,” she said.

Hwy. 413

Ballantyne said the NDP is fighting against the highway.

“Highways do not mitigate climate change,” she said.

Hwy. 407, the privately owned highway that runs parallel to the proposed 413, is under-utilized and could handle more volume if the price to drive on it wasn’t so high.

She said the NDP would cancel Hwy. 413 and the Bradford bypass and put that money into education, health care and transit.

Arnott acknowledged Halton Hills council is opposed to Hwy. 413 but said the Halton Hills Chamber of Commerce supports it.

Takacs said the 407 is under-utilized and should be used as a Hwy. 401 bypass for trucks.