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Farmers push back against Ontario bill that would put more homes on prime farmland

New provincial legislation that would loosen farmland protection is getting a cold reception from Ontario farming groups, which are urging the government to abandon proposed changes that would see more homes built on prime farmland.

Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act aims to address housing affordability, supply issues

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Farmers in Ontario are rallying to fight a government bill that would loosen the rules around farmland protection in the province, a move farmers say would result in more homes being built on prime agricultural land and could also threaten the very fabric of rural life.

Bill 97 — or the Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act — is aimed at drastically reshaping development rules to address housing affordability and supply in the province.

Among the proposed changes is an overhaul to residential development in rural areas, which would give municipalities the ability to split large farms into smaller lots to make it easier to build homes.

Farmers argue those changes would further imperil already vanishing farmland and redraw the rural landscape, putting homes and farms closer to each other — creating a potential flash point for conflict that farmers believe could have far-reaching consequences on their industry.

'Future of agriculture in this province is at stake'

"I think the future of agriculture in this province is at stake," said Wayne Caldwell, a farmer and a professor of rural land planning and development at the University of Guelph.

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"I see this as urban sprawl," he said. "In Huron County, in Middlesex County, there's an expectation this will create more than 20,000 residential lots in the countryside. Just imagine what it would be like to be farming in that context."

Caldwell said by putting suburban homes closer to farms, livestock operations wouldn't be able to expand when the need arises, farm equipment would have access issues and farms would face a deluge of complaints about the smell of manure or noise from "bird bangers," a type of ammunition fired into the air to scare anything with wings.

"Those become the challenges for farmers with all those neighbours in proximity to them — some of the concerns they are anticipating and some of the concerns they've had to live with historically, but with a much smaller group of residents around them."

It's why groups such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) are involved. They're urging farmers to voice their opposition to Bill 97 with their local members of provincial parliament (MPPs) and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, to pressure the government to abandon its proposal to make it easier split up farms, lest it weaken agriculture in Ontario, and with it, the province's long-term food security.

Fears bill would 'permanently remove' farmland

Peggy Breveld, president of the OFA, was not available for an interview Friday, but in a news release she said the changes would "fragment and permanently remove farmland from productive agricultural use and limit farm business growth."

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The joint statement was also signed by Max Hansgen, Ontario president of the NFU, who was quoted as saying "housing needs can be met in services settlement areas on a much smaller land base, reducing farmland loss and potential land use conflicts."

Caldwell pointed out if Ontario were to go through with the proposal, splitting farmland into small lots would also create congestion, multiplying the number of entrances to properties by upwards of 10 times to create access to new subdivisions.

"It fundamentally changes the way we use highways," he said. "In some locations it will lead to a reduction of speed limits, and changing the rules and laws along the roadway as well, really becoming not so much of a rural agricultural landscape as a residential landscape."

Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Clark, the municipal affairs and housing minister, told CBC News in an email Friday that Bill 97 already includes safeguards for protecting farmland.

She said that under the current proposal, any homes built near farmland must be compatible with existing agricultural operations and homes cannot be built in specialty crops areas.

The measures "will protect existing farmland and livestock," the email said. "This voluntary option was introduced at the request of farmers who wanted to be able to build homes on their land for their families."

Caldwell said he doesn't dispute there is great need for housing in Ontario. "It's more a question of balance."

The bill passed second reading in the legislature on May 11. Comments can be submitted to the government until June 5 through the Environmental Registry of Ontario.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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