Life under Doug Ford and his Conservative government is like living through a terrifying Groundhog Day: a perpetual loop with no end in sight. Farms, food, health, environment, wildlife and our very future are intricately woven together. If one fails, they all fail. Every one of these sectors is under attack by Ontario’s Conservative majority.
November 19, 2021 Hamilton city council voted 13 to 3 to save 3,300 acres of whitebelt lands from development. The provincially mandated 236,000 people expected to move to Hamilton over the next three decades will be housed within the existing urban boundary.
Hamilton offers a glimmer of hope for communities across the Greater Golden Horseshoe who are locked in battle against Doug Ford’s push to develop prime farmland. As Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk explained, changes made in 2020 by Ford to the Planning Act pushed for the use of prime agricultural lands for development. This planned sprawl combined with the unbridled use of Ministry Zoning Orders (MZOs) has undermined the long-term vision of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Halton Region (Halton), next on that long list, could lose 5,000 acres of prime farmland when the Regional Council votes on the staff recommended preferred option on February 9th.
Halton includes the city of Burlington and the towns of Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills. While Burlington and Oakville vie for the right to call themselves the best place to live in Canada, Milton and Halton Hills are in a tight race to claim the title for the fastest growing community in Canada. They outpace each other as they sprawl over some of the best farmland left in southern Ontario. Milton may have a slight advantage because in addition to having access to highways 403 and 407, it was built around highway 401 making travel to Toronto and Hamilton faster which subsequently increases its attractiveness to developers.
Despite having ample land dedicated for building over the next two decades, developers want more. Case in point, Halton Hills wants an additional 2,000 acres of land approved for development despite sitting on 1,400 acres of land that has already received approval but has not yet been developed.
Simply put, this is nothing more than a land grab that Ford is gifting transactionally to developers who funded the Facebook group Ontario Proud during the last election. Think of this as a safety net in case Ford isn’t re-elected this spring.
However, as long as Halton fits the same mix of housing within its current urban boundary, the province won’t likely overturn a decision to stop sprawl since the planning will conform to provincial regulations. That means selling the vision of complete communities that embrace more semis and townhomes creating gentle density within walkable neighbourhoods with cafes and shops nearby. In other words, neighbourhoods that ensure a range of new gentle density homes to be built over the next 30 years to meet the provincial requirements.
It also means taking into consideration changing demographics especially in Burlington and Oakville where the populations are older and there will be more homes coming onto the market in existing neighbourhoods.
Stop Sprawl Halton (SSHalton), a coalition of Halton citizens from all walks of life, has a mandate to educate the public, and Regional Council, about how to comfortably accommodate the next 30 years of population growth within existing boundaries in order to preserve essential farmland, watersheds, air quality and vibrant neighbourhoods.
Dr. Chris Hitchcock, a Climate Ambassador with Climate Interactive, is a member of SSHalton because she believes the most important thing in the world to work on is the climate crisis. According to Hitchcock, “Government and industry are not going to do this, so we have to.”
The Ford government has chosen to work from a business model based on a 1980s world instead of pivoting to the real world of the climate emergency that we actually live in. This government lacks clarity around the real choices and consequences that lay ahead for a civic society.
Hitchcock sees her role as a provider of “gentle encouragement to create better communities within Halton’s current urban boundary. Communities that lessen isolation, alienation, and vandalism based on effective group sizes. Built on inclusive collective decision-making.” That means walkable communities that embraces a full gamut of age groups.
It’s also important to consider the cost of sprawl which will impact the future taxes of current homeowners. The City of Ottawa found low density housing cost $465 per person while building within existing urban boundaries created a savings of $606 per person.
Canadian urban planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, recently tweeted:
“Don’t be fooled when advocates of ‘affordability’ argue for highways and sprawl. A suburban household costs the city $3,462 per year, while an urban household comes in at less than half that, $1,416. Fiscally viable cities and regions are compact and dense.”
Matt Setzkorm is farm operations manager at Andrews Scenic Acres Farm and Market Winery and sits on the board of directors for the Halton Federation of Agriculture. The 35-year-old, who has been farming for over a decade, is part of the farming community that wants to be rooted in Halton and continue growing food for their community. But Setzkorm asks, “How will farming continue to be part of this community when farmers are living under continual threat of their farmland being taken by council?”
Setzkorm says, “Council plans our community’s future. But the process and timelines are skewed. In February council will vote on the official plan for the next 30 years. Then, they will consult. The community is not part of the process to shape our future until after the decision is made. That’s backwards.”
Even though the official plan is for 30 years, every five to ten years council revisits acquiring another 5,000 to 10,000 acres of prime farmland. Less than a decade ago the official plan scooped up 7,000 acres of first-class farmland that is still waiting to be developed.
Setzkorm would like council to slow down and look at the cumulative effects. He sees the loss of farmland and green spaces as a failure of council to develop future-oriented planning unique to Halton as the region develops housing and employment lands. Setzkorm believes getting the planning right is essential as is establishing a firm boundary that would encourage sustainable urban and employment growth.
Andrews Scenic Acres is a popular pick-your-own destination that welcomes over 50,000 visitors a year and Setzkorm has seen first hand the strong desire for visitors to connect with farmers and local food.
According to Setzkorm, “The recreational, tourism, economic angle of farms like Andrews, Chudleigh’s, William’s, and Spring Ridge is huge for the local economy. Our farmers’ market buys from over 20 local producers and businesses that supply us with maple syrup, honey, jams and pies.”
Over 600 acres in size, about 150 acres of farmland are dedicated to growing fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. The remaining acreage is planted with soil-enriching crops like soya beans, wheat, and straw that become food, animal feed and mulch.
As Setzkorm observes, “We are in the middle of a climate emergency compounded by a pandemic and supply disruptions. We need to support our local farmers. We need a reckoning on how to plan and adapt for our future to build resilience into our urban centres while protecting our farmland. Our community at large, and council, have the power to be smart about how we develop our residential and employment communities while accommodating growth within a smaller footprint to benefit all members of our community.”
Halton Regional Council votes on the boundary issue on February 9. There are 24 councillors, including the regional chair, with Oakville having seven representatives, Burlington six, Milton five, and Halton Hills, three.
To preserve the urban boundary, 13 regional councillors need to say NO to preferred growth and YES to NO boundary expansion — the only reasonable option to lower emissions, save taxes, address food security and prevent flooding and biodiversity loss.
Editor’s note, January 10, 2022. Previously, this article stated: “Halton Hills wants an additional 2,000 acres of land approved for development despite sitting on 1,4000 acres of land that has already received approval but has not yet been developed;” the correct number is actually 1,400 acres of land. The story has been updated.