The growing challenge of minister’s zoning orders

Several policy and legal mechanisms exist to protect farmland in Ontario

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Better Farming

Farmers and other agricultural stakeholders across Ontario advocate for the protection of farmland, and a few policy and legal tools are available to help them.

“The Greenbelt is a great tool that protects farmland,” Kathryn Enders told Better Farming. She’s the executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural, agricultural and cultural landscape in the province.

“The Agricultural System protects farmland as well,” she added.

The Greenbelt Plan, 2017, establishes protected agricultural and natural land across the province. It currently includes more than 1.98 million acres. The Greenbelt Plan acknowledges the importance of the Agricultural System, which was mapped by the province in 2019.

The Agricultural System refers both to a base of prime agricultural land across the province and the infrastructure and transportation networks that connect them to support Ontario’s agri-food system.

Some environmental and agricultural stakeholders are concerned about Bill 197, COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020, and the advanced power it lends for minister’s zoning orders (MZO) to circumvent or fast-track environmental assessments.

However, “Bill 197 updated the Planning Act to enhance the existing MZO authority, for use only on lands outside the Greenbelt,” Conrad Spezowka, spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, told Better Farming. “We are working in partnership with municipalities to assist with overcoming potential barriers and delays for critical projects that wouldn’t otherwise be resolved.”

farmland aerial view
    IMNATURE/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Thus far, agricultural land protected under the Greenbelt Plan is still safe from development.

“Our government’s commitment to protecting the Greenbelt has not changed. This enhanced tool cannot be used for any land located in the Greenbelt as provided in legislation, and the minister is not prepared to consider any requests for a MZO for development within the Greenbelt,” Spezowka explained.

Ontario Farmland Trust also works with individual farmers to protect their land.

“We do farmland easement agreements and that’s the strongest tool that individual landowners have to protect their farms if they are not protected through policy,” Enders explained. “We work with individual landowners to register farmland easement agreements on their properties and that is a legal agreement that is registered on title that outlines restrictions and future conditions on how the land can be used.”

Easement agreements can “stipulate things like no severances, no new roads, no new buildings,” she added. BF

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