Areas to be removed from Ontario’s Greenbelt include prime farmland, wetlands and floodplains

Areas to be removed from Ontario’s Greenbelt include prime farmland, wetlands and floodplains

Jane Glassco walks on the pier on part of the 300 acres of her woodland and farmland that she donated to preserve the Ontario Greenbelt, near Schomberg, on May 23, 2007.J.P. MOCZULSKI/Tausi Insider

Ontario’s Greenbelt, a swath of land that encircles the Greater Toronto Area, is an aggregation of farmland, river valleys and other natural features. Established in 2005, it was to remain protected forever for the benefit of future generations, permanently off-limits to urbanization.

Forever turned out to be less than 20 years. Seeking to solve what has been widely described as a housing crisis, the government of Premier Doug Ford this month removed 19 plots of land from the Greenbelt, on which it hopes at least 50,000 new homes will be constructed.

The government suggested that many of these 7,400 acres never deserved protection in the first place. Environment Minister David Piccini told reporters at a briefing that some of the Greenbelt’s boundaries “were based more on political science than actual science.” The Ford government, he said, would protect lands that truly warranted it.

Opposition parties and environmental groups howled in protest. They also held demonstrations in opposition of the proposed developments.


Areas to be removed from Ontario’s Greenbelt include prime farmland, wetlands and floodplains Tausi Insider Team

Ontario has removed 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt, a region

surrounding the Toronto area that was intended to be protected

in perpetuity. The government hopes 50,000 homes will be

built on these lands, beginning no later than 2025. They’re

offset by a 9,400-acre block to be added to the Greenbelt’s

western fringe, near the Town of Erin.

Location of 9,400

acres added to Greenbelt

Settlement areas

inside of

Greenbelt

Settlement areas

outside of

Greenbelt

Locations of

lands removed

from Greenbelt

matt mcclearn and john sopinski/the globe and mail,

Source: ontario government

Areas to be removed from Ontario’s Greenbelt include prime farmland, wetlands and floodplains Tausi Insider Team

Ontario has removed 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt, a region

surrounding the Toronto area that was intended to be protected

in perpetuity. The government hopes 50,000 homes will be

built on these lands, beginning no later than 2025. They’re

offset by a 9,400-acre block to be added to the Greenbelt’s

western fringe, near the Town of Erin.

Location of 9,400

acres added to Greenbelt

Settlement areas

inside of

Greenbelt

Settlement areas

outside of

Greenbelt

Locations of

lands removed

from Greenbelt

matt mcclearn and john sopinski/the globe and mail,

Source: ontario government

Areas to be removed from Ontario’s Greenbelt include prime farmland, wetlands and floodplains Tausi Insider Team

Ontario has removed 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt, a region surrounding the Toronto area that

was intended to be protected in perpetuity. The government hopes 50,000 homes will be built on

these lands, beginning no later than 2025. They’re offset by a 9,400-acre block to be added

to the Greenbelt’s western fringe, near the Town of Erin.

Location of 9,400

acres added to

Greenbelt

Settlement areas

inside of

Greenbelt

Settlement areas

outside of

Greenbelt

Locations of

lands removed

from Greenbelt

matt mcclearn and john sopinski/the globe and mail, Source: ontario government

To better understand the environmental attributes and characteristics of these land parcels, Tausi Insider created digital boundaries of the lands in question using a geographical information system. We cross-referenced those boundaries with data from government bodies and other sources that depicted the presence of wetlands, agricultural lands, floodplains and other natural features. We spoke to experts familiar with these lands, and the consequences of developing them.

The lands to be removed from the Greenbelt are mostly prime farmland, and include two parcels that were protected to the highest level. Three parcels include wetlands that were deemed to be provincially significant. Portions of several of the properties are within regulated floodplains. Most of the parcels are within areas that are part of natural heritage systems – interlinked networks of land intended to preserve or restore biodiversity in the long run. Wildlife corridors will also be narrowed.

The environmental consequences of developing these lands depends to a large degree on the manner in which they’re developed. But by removing Greenbelt protections from these isolated patches of land, critics warn, the government has assured an acceleration of degradation of important types of land that have already been in decline for generations.

Buying the farm

That so much of the land to be removed from the Greenbelt is farmland isn’t surprising, since the Greenbelt includes nearly 5,000 working farms comprising 40 per cent of its surface area. Most of these parcels are designated as prime agricultural areas, which are contiguous blocks of land earmarked for agriculture – meaning that they connect without a break.

Martin Straathof is executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, a group that has advocated for protection of farmland for about two decades. He said prime agricultural land is designated primarily on the basis of soil quality, including its depth and mineral and organic contents. Topography also matters: Rocks and drainage are also considered.

“Prime agricultural land, yes, really does mean that it’s some of the best ag land in this province,” he said.

Two parcels, located about 1.5 kilometres apart on the south shore of Lake Ontario east of Hamilton, are located on land designated as a specialty crop area for tender fruit. In Ontario, specialty crops include peaches, cherries, grapes, pears, greenhouse crops and others that require special soils, climates and farming skills. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs asserts that specialty crop areas deserve the highest levels of protection because they’re “scarce and unique; if lost, they cannot be recreated.”

Sarah Marshall, manager of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers, an association that represents member farmers on a variety of fronts including setting prices for their fruit commodities, said the two properties are outside the main growing areas in the Niagara region. It would make little sense, she added, for most farmers in the main areas to work these distant plots. On the other hand, removing their protected status might encourage developers to buy more farmland closer to the main production areas, which could drive up farmland prices and leave more acres fallow, reducing food production.

Mr. Straathof said the attributes of individual plots are largely beside the point. His organization contends that farms remain viable only when they’re part of a larger base of connected farmland. Their removal will further increase fragmentation, already a problem in southern Ontario.

“Having large continuous areas for agriculture is essential for normal farming practices to occur,” the agriculture ministry’s website says. One reason is that farming often involves moving large, slow-moving equipment along public roads, kicking up dust and producing foul odours; such things often annoy non-agricultural landowners, and can lead to conflict. Moreover, agricultural areas often include grain dryers, food processors, distribution centres and other facilities that benefit from having large concentrations of farms nearby.

The Agriculture Ministry did not answer questions from The Globe about whether it provided advice, what advice it provided and whether its position on the importance of protecting farmland has changed.

The government’s own advisers have warned against developing agricultural lands. In its report released in February, the Housing Affordability Task Force told the province that there’s enough land outside greenbelts, and within existing built-up areas, on which to build. It also recommended continued protection of greenbelts and other environmentally sensitive lands. “Relying too heavily on undeveloped land would whittle away too much of the already small share of land devoted to agriculture,” it advised.

Mr. Straathof said Ontario lost nearly one-fifth of its farmland in the past 35 years. If current trends continue, the province will have developed all of its remaining agricultural lands within a century. “One hundred years left is a terrifying thought,” he said. “Because we can’t just push agriculture to other parts of the province. Food production is where it’s at right now for a reason.”

Draining the swamp

As with farmland, Ontario’s wetlands are also in accelerating decline. On Nov. 30, a report by the Auditor-General of Ontario said that according to the most recent data available, from 2011 to 2015 southern Ontario lost more than 1,800 hectares of wetlands annually – a rate three times higher than the rate between 2000 and 2011.

“Wetlands are particularly beneficial in reducing flooding as they can act like sponges by providing short-term water storage during times of peak stormwater runoff,” the report stated. “A wetland as small as two hectares can retain water runoff from an area 70 times its size, significantly reducing flood damage.”

Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk singled out the Ministry of Natural Resources. Provincial rules require that wetlands designated as “provincially significant” must be protected. Yet there’s no requirement to protect wetlands that haven’t been assessed.

Decades ago, roughly half of the province’s wetlands were assessed, but the ministry’s efforts stalled almost completely in the past decade. Consequently, nearly half of the wetlands in southern Ontario are unevaluated, and thus at risk of being lost.

Lisa Stocco, a spokesperson for the Grand River Conservation Authority, said the lands to be removed from the Greenbelt close to Hamilton feature a number of wetlands, watercourses and ponds. “These wetlands would provide similar benefits to those that all wetlands provide i.e. flood attenuation, water quality improvements, habitat etc.,” she said in a written response to questions.

Another of the larger plots to be developed, located northwest of Newmarket, Ont., also includes provincially significant wetlands. Glenn MacMillan, general manager of development, engineering and restoration of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, said the land includes water courses, some wooded areas and a small amount of river floodplain. It is also adjacent to the Oak Ridges Moraine, which is “significant for groundwater recharge.”

Mr. MacMillan said the land could be safely developed, without damaging these features.

“Ideally what we’d like to see, as a minimum, is that any of the natural heritage features on the property like the wetlands, woodland, watercourses, floodplains, valley features should be protected with appropriate buffers and setbacks,” he said. “And that’s determined through detailed studies prior to development.”

Breaking up is hard to do

Most of the parcels to be removed from the Greenbelt are located in areas designated by the province as natural heritage systems (NHS). These are interconnected strands of natural features such as wetlands, or habitat for endangered animals and rare plants, that are at least 500 metres wide. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry promoted the concept for more than 20 years, and the parcels were considered particularly important in areas such as southern Ontario, where habitat loss and fragmentation were common.

“A key concept in the development of an NHS is that everything is connected,” noted one 2018 document published by the provincial government. “They are usually the least disturbed and largest of remaining natural areas.”

A fair swap?

To compensate for the development of the 19 land plots, the government added a larger piece of land to the Greenbelt. It’s located immediately west of the Greenbelt’s western boundary, near the Town of Erin. Some of the land is on the northeastern fringe of the Paris-Galt Moraine, a 150-kilometre glacial deposit of sediment and rock created during the last ice age. Similar to the land being removed from the Greenbelt, most of this area is designated as prime agricultural land.

You’d think Kevin Thomason would be thrilled. He’s vice-chair of the Greenbelt West Coalition, an alliance of non-governmental organizations that has long advocated for the westward expansion of the Greenbelt to protect the Moraine.

But Mr. Thomason is scathing in his assessment, calling the addition a “random little parcel.” His organization has asked that all 150,000 hectares of the Moraine be added to the Greenbelt. Pointing to the area’s western border, which runs in a straight line for more than eight kilometres along a road known as 4th Line, he described the proposed addition as entirely political, lacking any ecological or scientific basis.

“It’s a surprise that this is the area the government would choose to protect,” he said. “It’s certainly not the most threatened area. It’s certainly not the area of greatest ecological value.”

The land lies within the jurisdiction of the Grand River Conservation Authority. In an e-mailed response to questions, Lisa Stocco, the authority’s spokesperson, wrote that the area features wetlands, floodplains and other features that would enjoy “added levels of protection afforded to them with the municipality being required to ensure any future land use changes conform to the Greenbelt Plan policies.”

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