Superhighway Strife

As opposition to the proposed Highway 413 grows, farmers in the area are left in limbo.

By Jackie Clark

Urban sprawl into rural areas is happening around many city centres across Ontario, but perhaps nowhere so intensively as northwest of Toronto. This is the site of the proposed GTA West (GTAW) Transportation Corridor Route, and potential route for Highway 413.

The proposed route would run southwest from Highway 400 north of Kirby Road and meet the Highway 401/407 interchange, running through York, Peel and Halton regions. The government calls this path the Preferred Route.

“The GTA West highway will help meet the projected growth in both population and employment identified in the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and will deliver multiple benefits including greater connectivity between urban growth centres, enhanced people and goods movement, improved commuting and greater economic vitality,” the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and OMAFRA tell Better Farming in a joint statement.

Indeed, average commutes in the area are expected to increase by 27 minutes per day by 2031, according to The Big Move, a 2008 review conducted by Metrolinx, the Ontario transportation agency that operates much of the public transit in the province.

The MTO conducted the first stage of the environmental assessment (EA) for the project from 2008-12 and suggested four GTAW recommended actions, including the Highway 413 corridor. However, the Liberal government suspended the second stage of the EA in 2015 and conducted an expert panel review of the work done to date.

Among other findings, the panel modelled scenarios of future traffic and found “the GTAW recommended actions would deliver approximately one minute of travel time savings per vehicular trip across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. On its own, the proposed new GTAW highway corridor would deliver approximately half of those savings, or about 30 seconds per vehicle trip,” according to the executive summary report in MTO online archives.

Mounting opposition

In 2019, Doug Ford’s Conservative government resumed work on stage two of the EA, including public consultation and confirmation of the route. However, opposition to the project is growing.

On March 10, Toronto city council opposed plans for Highway 413 and backed a request from Canadian advocacy organization Environmental Defence for a federal EA. Councils in Mississauga, Vaughan, Halton Hills, Halton Region and Orangeville have all voted to oppose the highway, and Brampton and Caledon are echoing the call for a federal EA.

Peel Region also revoked its support for the proposed highway on March 11.

The ag perspective

The OFA acknowledges that “people and food and our supplies and inputs need to be moved across this province,” Peggy Brekveld, president of the organization, tells Better Farming. “In the same breath, we think it’s important to put good planning into any highway transportation system or any major investment in infrastructure.”

Some farmers in the affected regions want government to “make a decision – yes or no,” says Tom Dolson, president of the Peel Federation of Agriculture. The proposed Highway 413 route and GTAW Transportation Corridor Route bisects one of his farms on Mississauga Road.

“We can’t afford to have our lands frozen any longer. We’ve been frozen for 14 years,” Dolson says. Because of the ongoing provincial EA in the region, “you can’t sell your land, you’re reluctant to make a capital investment on it … it’s difficult to mortgage or finance the properties to get the next generation going.”

Development in the region is inevitable, he adds.

“The writing is on the wall for us in the Whitebelt,” Dolson says. The Whitebelt refers to the region between urban areas to the south, and the Greenbelt to the north.

“Whether there is a corridor or not, that land is coming under urban development and it makes it really chal lenging to help out the next generation – it’s almost impossible. Our hands are really tied.”

The federal EA that Environmental Defence and some municipalities are requesting will prolong and exacerbate this issue, he adds.

Farmers in the region are looking for transportation solutions as well.

“We’re in a stage now in Caledon where our lands are becoming fragmented,” says Dolson. “Farmers in Halton can’t get to an elevator that we have in Caledon.”

Concerns exist around load limits and problems with local police, he adds. “Farmers are being detained or told they can’t travel on roads. That’s one of many frustrations we have.”

The OFA “would really like to see an agricultural impact assessment done and be an integral part of project planning and design and construction,” says Brekveld. “It could be a conversation about the agriculture community as a whole … about looking at the bigger picture before you actually do the investment.”

Dolson agrees.

“I think an agricultural impact assessment is important,” he says.

“Ontario’s farmland is critical to the success of our agri-food sector, which is a key driver of the economy and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. Our government is committed to protecting Ontario’s farmland and supporting economic viability while managing growth,” says the statement from the MTO and OMAFRA. “The MTO developed the Preferred Route with an eye to minimize impact to farmland. The preliminary design phase of the GTA West includes agricultural impacts for the Preferred Route.”

Reps for the OFA, MTO and OMAFRA all declined to comment specifically about the likelihood or progress toward an additional agricultural impact assessment.

Red Brick farm house surrounded by trees
    A recent photo of one of Tom Dolson's farms. – Tom Dolson photo

Loss of farmland in the region “is pretty much inevitable,” says Dolson. “As soon as the Greenbelt came in, the development industry saw that Whitebelt as an area for future development.”

Dolson estimates 75 per cent of the land in the Whitebelt is owned by developers and rented to farmers.

However, “it’s very difficult for farmers in the area to make a living when you have a shrinking land base and declining revenues,” he explains. “One way or another, the Whitebelt is going to be built out, so there’s no place left for us to grow our businesses. The end result of the GTAW corridor is the same, whether it’s a network of urban and regional roads or the 413.”

Protect the land

Some groups in the province still hope to prevent that loss of farmland.

“We know that the population in the GTA will be growing but we also know that we need to be able to feed those people,” Kathryn Enders, executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, tells Better Farming. The Ontario Farmland Trust is an organization working to preserve agricultural and natural features across the countryside of the province.

“Paving over thousands of acres of farmland is not something that we can undo later and I don’t think that future generations will ever fault us for protecting too much farmland, especially when we don’t know what the situation will be like with climate change and how that will change agriculture,” Enders says. “The safest thing is to protect as much farmland as we can.”

Many acres of prime agricultural land in Ontario have already been developed, “so losing thousands of acres is not something that would support a resilient local food system,” she adds. “It contradicts the agricultural system that the province has implemented.”

Indeed, OMAFRA acknowledges the importance of the agricultural system.

“The agricultural system approach in the Greater Golden Horseshoe recognizes the importance of protecting farmland and supporting the economic viability of the agri-food sector by identifying and protecting a continuous, productive land base for agriculture across municipalities and providing support for the agri-food supply chain the sector depends on,” says the MTO and OMAFRA statement.

However, the proposed Highway 413 has potential to lead to further fragmentation of agricultural land, Enders explains.

aerial view of traffic on a highway next to farm land
    simonkr/E+ photo

“It’s not just a highway. That highway will bring growth around it and development pressure. The highway is the first step and then more farmland loss will follow,” she adds.

Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager at Environmental Defence, agrees.

“There’s a concern with the actual land that the highway would pave over, but probably an even bigger concern is the wave of sprawl that follows that bulldozing of the highway’s path,” she says.

“We, as an environmental organization, see the massive value of agricultural land,” Buchanan explains. “It’s really important to make sure that this farmland and these farmers are there and building a massive mega highway is not the way to do that.”

Reviews, including the one conducted by the Liberal government have “proven many times that this highway won’t do very much to provide traffic relief … so you have to ask the question, Who is this highway actually for?

“It’s becoming more and more clear that the goal of the highway is really to open up more land for sprawl, for real estate, for industrial warehouses, and a lot of the land that they want to develop is farmland, which is necessary to feed a growing population,” says Buchanan.

The issue, then, isn’t only important to environmentalists or farmers.

“You can’t eat real estate. It’s a really huge concern, not just for environmental groups, but just for people in general,” Buchanan says. “We are seeing an almost unprecedented wave of opposition as awareness grows.”

Who gets a say?

Some farmers are frustrated with the demands of environmental groups that are keeping their land tied up in EAs.

“Environmental activists come forward claiming to represent (farmers) and they don’t represent our interests,” says Dolson. “They’re not stakeholders; they shouldn’t be speaking for us.”

Farmers would like the opportunity to speak for themselves around issues of development.

farmer in field watching traffic drive by
    Jodie Aldred photo

“We have to be a part of the discussion about that road network and system that abuts the Greenbelt where our farmers will continue to farm for the foreseeable future. We need roads with rollover curbs, we need wide enough roads that will handle our equipment,” explains Dolson.

“These are all the reasons we need to be at the table. There are different considerations for farm equipment than there are for cars and trucks.”

More generally, “going forward we would really like to see a stronger emphasis on agricultural impact assessments, not just in the Greenbelt but beyond,” Brekveld says. “Because any kind of infrastructure investment, especially things such as hydro lines and roads, they all have the potential to impact the ag community and how it functions.”

Those assessments would include “an evaluation of the negative impacts of any kind of proposed development. The goal is to first, avoid negative impacts; second, to minimize them; and third, to mitigate them.

“It could be something as simple as ensuring the highway or roadway is wide enough for farm equipment to travel down. It could be talking about whether you’re dividing up regular agricultural traffic lines,” Brekveld adds.

At minimum, the Ontario agricultural community agrees that they need a seat at the table.

“It’s so important to have firm urban boundaries that control where the development is and intensification in cities as appropriate,” Enders says. “Once you pave over farmland, you can’t get it back.” BF

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