The Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt
One of the election promises the Liberals appear determined to actually fulfill is for a greenbelt around the Golden Horseshoe. When in opposition, they promised an Ottawa to Niagara greenbelt but now it is Lake Scugog area to Niagara plus the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area. The latter extends from the northern boundary of Peel through Dufferin, Simcoe, Grey and Bruce to Tobermory. The addition of this extra piece of belt which is under tight NEC development control legislation is strange. The Counties of Grey and Bruce are not even close to the Golden Horseshoe.
All rural landowners especially farmers in the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area as well as all of Peel, York, Hamilton, Halton Hamilton and most of the Niagara Regions should be aware that Bill 27 is an immediate government threat to their land values. On December 16, 2003, the Minister of Municipal Affairs introduced Bill 27, An Act to Establish a Greenbelt Study Area and to Amend the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act.
The stated purpose of Bill 27 is to establish a Greenbelt study area. The power of municipalities in respect of land use planning matters is restricted in areas outside urban areas. All development applications in this area, excluding the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area, are frozen until December 16, 2004. No official plan amendments or Ontario Municipal Board decisions are allowed during the one-year freeze. The Bill allows the Minister to make regulations which modify the definitions of urban settlement areas or urban uses.
The Minister may make regulations retroactively and those who contravene a regulation are assumed guilty and have no recourse for any harm resulting from Ministerial actions. This smacks of a legalization of Ministerial dictatorship. While the cutting of trees and the grading of land have not yet been proscribed, it may be done at the whim of the Minister once the legislation is passed.
This draconian legislation has had second reading and will be passed in the near future. A legislative committee will hold hearings on three occasions but the dates have not been announced. All that remains is to determine when and where these restrictions will be applied. The legislation is permissive in nature, that is, it gives the Minister freedom to develop and proclaim regulations in regard to land use.
The most threatening section is Number 8(2)b, which allows the Minister to make regulations prohibiting the cutting or removal of trees, site alterations or the grading of land in the greenbelt study area. If he chooses, the Minister can, with the stroke of his pen, eliminate the value of woodlots and put the lumbering, fuelwood, furniture and forestry equipment supply operations out of business. The economic impact will be substantial especially to landowners who consider trees a crop to be systematically managed and harvested. For details of the legislation, go to the website of the Ministry at: MAH.gov.on.ca.
An interview by Anne Howden Thompson with Minister Gerritson reported in the Ontario Farmer, May 11, when asked about the compensation to landowners suggests he distinguishes between existing farms and the disruption of ongoing businesses. He does not consider down zoning farmland as a change in operation. If he decides to prevent all tree cutting, he will obviously be disrupting the sale of saw logs and firewood. Likely permanently.
Greenbelt area landowners with woodlots may wish to document their saw log and firewood sales to demonstrate they have such an enterprise before the no cut regulations are put into law by the Cabinet. Woodlot owners would also be well advised to have a woodlot plan developed by a professional forester. This may be a pre-requisite for all future tree cutting and such a plan demonstrates both the existence of a business operation and a concern for the environment.
Similarly, every farmer or landowner with a land based enterprise which may be terminated by the coming Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt Plan should document their business situation. While the present Discussion Paper does not mention such restrictions, they are implicit in the Act which prevents land grading or extraction, Nurseries, landscape architects, gravel pits, etc. should monitor the Plan carefully. When it is finally enacted, could developers who purchased a property to create house, commercial or industrial lots qualify for business disruption?
Simultaneous to the introduction of Bill 27, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing appointed a Task Force of 13 individuals to report on the boundaries, government structure, etc. Their report entitled Toward a Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt was released May 13 and is available on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing website at mah.gov.on.ca. Go to the Green Belt Task Force and follow on.
Several consultation sessions have been scheduled on the Task Force Discussion Paper. A series of day-long sessions will be held at which only representatives of organizations have been invited to participate, one representative per organization. These meetings are for, so called stakeholders, mainly of the Green Variety, but are not open to individual landowners, the real stakeholders. Each evening, after the stakeholder sessions, public meetings will be held at which time, I understand, anyone may speak from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The meetings are scheduled as follows: May 25 - Oshawa Community College; May 26 - Caledon East Community Centre; June 10 - St. Catherines C.A.W. Centre; June 16 - Burlington Convention Centre. No meetings have been scheduled north of Highway 9 for NEC landowners in that area.
Every farmer who is in the study area should attend at least one of the meetings to learn how they will be impacted and to make their concerns known. The Task Force Discussion Paper begins by defining the function of the Greenbelt Prohibition Act 2004, bill 27, under a new name as establishing a permanent greenbelt in southern Ontario which would protect environmentally sensitive lands and farmlands and help manage and contain urban growth. Not only do they assume these rather dissimilar objectives can be achieved by a permanent greenbelt, but they claim, without any examples or evidence that “good planning for the environmental and agricultural protection and sustainable development will result in economic benefits to the residents of the Golden Horseshoe. This is a typical environmentalist assumption which has not and cannot be proven.
This discussion paper is in reality an opinion piece. It contains no data regarding characteristics of the area in question. No acreages are presented of the study area, farms, woodlots, urban areas or anything else. In fact, the paper could be easily applied to any area in Southern Ontario and probably it will be because the government has promised greenbelts around all major cities. A paper based only on opinions which ignores the geographic characteristics of the area and economic costs and benefits is of little value in planning the future of any jurisdiction.
The writers claim the proposed legislation recognizes:
§ The environmental and agricultural significance of the proposed Greenbelt Study Area to the people of Ontario;
§ The proposed Greenbelt Study Area’s importance as a source of food, water, natural heritage systems, greenspace, recreation and natural resources, which enhance quality of life; and
§ The importance of continuing to protect the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine.
The legislation in Bill 27 may assume the above but provides no data to support these assumptions. As J.K. Galbraith, who coined the term conventional wisdom asserted, it is usually outdated and incorrect.
There is a bunch more verbage about a vision, goals, consultations and the background and context. All warm fuzzy stuff with no examples and no hard data. They even talk of Greenbelt case studies and claim many growing metropolitan areas have established them. Later they identify the Ottawa Greenbelt, a classic failure in that at least two new communities have been established on its outside perimeter. Both Barrhaven and Kanata have populations in excess of 50,000 residents.
Greenbelts may prevent internal development but they are ignored by developers who purchase land on the outside such as recent activities in Bradford and Bond Head. Some day, in 20 or 30 years, the developers from Barrie will meet those from Toronto and the Megapolis of Toba or Torbar will be created with its epicenter near Cookstown. Can they cite one Canadian city where a Greenbelt has been a success? If so, why didn’t they?
After a long section on Environmental Protection similar to the rationale for the Niagara Escarpment Plan, there is a section on Agricultural Protection. The authors give passing recognition, as do all planners, to prime agricultural lands and specialty crop areas in the Niagara Region. In their short discussion on the viability of Agriculture, they identify the following as approaches and tools used in other jurisdictions: “land trusts, conservation easements, financial incentives, supporting infrastructure investment, education and marketing as well as land use plans and zoning”. Most of these are control mechanisms which do nothing for farm incomes, which they fail to recognize is the primary requirement for farm viability.
The actual approaches proposed and recommended include a task force on agriculture to be immediately created to develop agricultural policies that will ensure a viable farm industry across the greenbelt and the rest of Ontario by October 2004. This is simply an admission that, we don’t know what to do about economic viability so go study the problem. If only it were that easy.
Interestingly, the task force would be led by OMAF and have representation from the Ministry of Finance, Municipal Affairs and Housing, MNR, MOE, Consumer and Business Services, federal departments and others as required. This apparently is their perception of a broadly based group of stakeholders. Such a study brings to mind the Challenge of Abundance which cost $550,000 in 1968 dollars and the more recent Odyssey Initiative. Neither solved the problems of farmer viability. Farm income problems will never be solved by studies conducted by civil servants who have limited knowledge or experience with food production or rural communities.
The Land Use Policies proposed include:
1. The necessity of proving that urban designated areas lack sufficient land which could be provided by intensification or redevelopment before any expansion occurs.
2. Elimination of lot creation for rural residential in fill.
3. Land use policies which are consistent across the whole study area. The policies which are appropriate in Bruce County are not appropriate in Niagara. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.
4. Secondary agriculture uses and agriculture uses must not erode the viability of prime agricultural areas.
They propose to do the above by tightening the secondary uses for good tender fruit and grape lands, directing selected agricultural-related uses to settlement areas and exploring support mechanisms and incentives for secondary uses. The approaches are appropriate if implemented in a reasonable manner but they demonstrate the inconsistency of attempting to institute a single land use policy in all areas.
The Task Force propose to protect the tender fruit and grape lands and the Holland Marsh by permanently restricting the settlement boundaries. Sounds nice but how do St. Catherines, Niagara Falls or Bradford grow? Looks like a simplistic solution to a very complex problem.
Other agricultural lands are to be permanently protected if they have contiguous areas sufficiently large to support the integrity of the agricultural economy and rural landscape. Protecting the rural landscape by freezing land uses is rather difficult to justify or achieve unless someone can value rural landscape and is willing to compensate farmers to keep operating what are frequently money losing enterprises.
Then the Task Force also proposes to revert to the unlikely solutions of research and education programs, promotion and marketing initiatives and supporting infrastructure. The Task Force members apparently have no understanding that farmers operate businesses or all the above already have been tried.
The final proposed support for agriculture is Taxation and Financial Tools. They suggest a review of the assessment system and easements and land trusts. A review of the assessment system is commendable but unlikely. The easements and land trusts stuff is environmental hocus pocus. On one hand, they want to freeze land uses thus seriously depreciating every farm owners’ net worth and on the other, offering an inheritance tax concession financed by the Canadian taxpayer. Thanks but no thanks.
The Task Force also had recommendations on Transportation and Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and Administration and Implementation. They make many recommendations about protecting natural heritage, prime agricultural land, mineral resources, and natural resources and recreation. The needs of urbanites are considered while landowners are not even recognized as stakeholders. The prime stakeholders in fact.
The proposed regulatory tools to encourage implementation identified include: the planning act, tree conservation, site alteration and topsoil by-laws under the Municipal Act, regulation of waterways by conservation authorities, lakes and rivers improvement act, Niagara Escarpment Commission development control permits and surprisingly the Foodland Guidelines long replaced by Policy Statements under the Planning Act. More laws only increase the bureaucracy.
Non-regulatory tools are claimed to be: public education and land stewardship information; incentives and special programs; operated by non-government agencies and governments; and land securement of private lands by conservation easements, donations of land, bequests of land and various tax incentive programs. These are all blunt instruments which will do little to compensate landowners for the losses in property values.
The one part of the Task Force Discussion Paper I agree with whole-heartedly is that it be administered, as is the Oak Ridges Moraine, by local municipalities on the basis of by-laws. The Development Control Permit System used in the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area must be rescinded and avoided at all costs. It is not democratic because all members of the commission are appointed by the provincial cabinet, they do not report in any way to the local residents and have been systematically co-opted by the NEC staff.
The major concerns I have with the legislation and the Task Force discussion document are: the total lack of recognition of who owns the 600,000 acres to be planned; the ignoring of the fact that landowners are the primary and only true stakeholders; and no recognition or discussion of costs. The cost to landowners of this proposal will be in the order of billions not millions of dollars. If there are 600,000 acres involved and the decrease in value is an average of $10,000 per acre, the loss will be $6 billion, equal to the provincial annual deficit. Even if my estimate of $10,000 is too high, the loss will easily exceed $1 billion.
Rural landowners in the Golden Horseshoe need to be concerned. They are going to pay a high price for the convenience of urbanites. Read the legislation and the Task Force report, then attend the public meetings and tell your provincial MPPs what you think of this billion dollar scam.
2, 470 words