Is It Time to Enlarge the Greenbelt?

Campaign Lake Simcoe has released its response to Amendment 1 of the province’s Growth Plan. The title, Continuing to Promote Sprawl in Simcoe County, is a pretty clear indication of their position.

The organization argues that the province’s proposed Amendment still leaves natural and agricultural areas vulnerable to “very large development projects” that enables further sprawl, contradicts the province’s own Growth Plan and runs counter to the wishes of Simcoe County residents. An Environics poll states, “91% of people say that the Greenbelt should not only be protected, but it should be expanded to bring in more farmland and natural heritage lands and protect it from further growth and development.”

The Coalition supports the Amendment’s proposal to shift population growth toward communities further north to avoid contributing more commuter traffic to highway 400.

I attended the Open House discussion regarding the Inspiring Innisfil strategic plan. It gave me an opportunity to hear the views of a local farm owner who described some of the difficulties they face:

He pointed out that most of the farmland in Innisfil appears to already be owned by developers who rent it out to the remaining farmers. (The number of billboards in farm fields suggest he’s right). Except that developers prefer to rent land for a limited period, such as 5 or 6 years. Unfortunately, this does not fit with the needs of farmers who have to plan investments in costly machinery over a longer period such as 10 years. This is one way that agriculture is gradually eased out of an area regardless of zoning or local planning. I had already overheard some conversation several years ago that local farmers were becoming discouraged about staying in this area. I doubt the situation has improved.

He also noted that some of the people who support local food and agriculture in principle tend to be more critical when faced with the reality of an operating farm as a neighbour. He cited complaints about things like spraying and had even had someone complain about his livestock being outside on a winter day. I can attest to some seasonal ‘aromas’ but as far as I’m concerned, it comes with the territory. Increased traffic on local roads makes it more dangerous and inconvenient for farmers to move their machinery and equipment from one field to another. Commuting drivers can be very impatient, and unsympathetic, with tractors on the road.

Some of the solutions to make farming more viable can be problematic too. One strategy is to encourage farm-gate enterprises but this also involves the added burden of strict food processing regulation and inspections. This is an administrative and financial hurdle that farmers are not well suited to cope with.

Farmers have traditionally opposed greenbelt legislation as an infringement that prevents them from retiring comfortably from the proceeds of their largest asset, their land. But greenbelt legislation would be an effective way to get developers to relinquish the agricultural land they’re already holding.

I can think of a couple of possible alternatives to greenbelt legislation. One would be the creation of an Agricultural Land Trust. This could be formed by a number of stakeholders including the farmers themselves. The idea would be to buy farmland as it comes on the market, holding it in trust, and renting it to new or existing farmers on reasonable terms. It could potentially give farmers a greater say in the use of larger tracts of land. Perhaps it would enable planning of new agri-businesses and agri-tourism. The announcement of the sale of Cookstown Greens seems to be an ideal property for Trust ownership. Currently the property grows specialty vegetables for the Toronto restaurant market. The owner has suggested there’s potential to develop an on-site restaurant, cooking school or other food-related enterprises.

If the greenbelt or a land trust are not options, then what? Can legislation be created to bar developers from buying land that is not already zoned for residential or commercial development? That seems to be the only other definitive alternative to keep rural land in agricultural production.

Related reading:

Places to Grow, That’s the Question

Why Farming in Innisfil Has a Future

Reinventing: Agriculture in Innisfil, part 2

Reinventing: Agriculture in Innisfil, part 1