by SUSAN MANN
Town of Milton planning staff is meeting with area farmers to discuss their concerns about a proposal to designate a large swath of rural land in northwest Milton “natural heritage.” The farmers say the designation will stifle and eventually kill the municipality’s farming industry.
Milton Ward 3 Coun. Cindy Lunau agrees with the farmers’ concerns about the designation. “If this were allowed to happen you may as well designate this (rural area) a provincial park.”
The change in designation is contained in Milton’s proposed zoning bylaw amendments. The land is currently zoned agriculture. Milton is located west of Toronto and is part of Halton Region.
Halton Federation of Agriculture director Lara Jones Gevaert, whose family has farmed on Guelph Line in north Milton for more than 40 years, says the heritage designation will cover most of the area north of the town and Highway 401. Farming will be allowed as one of the existing uses in the natural heritage area.
But the problem with the term “existing uses” is that it implies continuous farming activity, she says. She questions whether the new designation would allow changes such as farmers bringing fields left fallow for a year back into production, operation expansions or switches to different livestock breeds or crops.
Barb Koopmans, acting director of Milton’s planning and development department, says she wouldn’t interpret the draft bylaw to be so restrictive. She says planning staff will meet with farmers several times this summer to determine what can be done to address their concerns.
She says Milton’s draft zoning bylaw illustrates the implications on agricultural land use of provincial Greenbelt and Greenbelt natural heritage protection policies. “It’s kind of scary.”
Milton had to put the natural heritage policies into its bylaws because its plans must conform to Halton Region’s official plan. The provincial government required Halton’s official plan to conform to Ontario’s 2005 Greenbelt plan, which contains the natural heritage system policies.
In Milton, the rural area in almost all of the former township of Nassagaweya – north of the 401 where the natural heritage designation is proposed – is within the Greenbelt plan. The plan permits agriculture but “in a policy framework they have put a lot of conditions on it,” Koopmans says. For example, for new building construction separation distances are required from key natural heritage features.
Gevaert says the natural heritage designation would be “a further restriction” on farming. “New farmers will not be able to come to the Town of Milton and create new agriculture because it’s not under permitted uses. It’s not even mentioned under permitted uses.”
The proposal will also affect farmers because new buildings, such as barns, storage facilities or structures for value added activities would not be allowed. Rural property owners will be affected, as residential additions to houses, pools, decks and garages will be prohibited, she asserts.
Not so, says Koopmans. These activities will still be allowed but landowners will have to complete an environmental impact study or other studies first and that’s “a very onerous requirement.”
Gevaert distrusts municipal officials’ assurances about the proposed bylaw. When you look at the policy, “it clearly does restrict agriculture,” she says. It will be up to planners to interpret what “existing uses” means, she adds.
Koopmans says they’re trying to find the right balance between agricultural permissions and protection of the natural heritage system. She acknowledges that the current regulatory framework protects the natural heritage system and doesn’t provide farmers with the same level of protection. “The agricultural community has a lot more steps to go through to get the approvals they need to do what they would normally do.”
John Opsteen, Halton’s representative on the Ontario Federation of Agriculture policy advisory council, says they were surprised the process was moving so quickly. Halton federation wasn’t notified directly about the zoning bylaw amendments, nor was the region’s agricultural advisory committee.
Gevaert says Halton federation has asked Milton council to defer the amendment until farmers can meet with planning staff. Koopmans says they will do that.
Another wrinkle in the process has to do with an amendment to the Halton Region official plan, which outlines the natural heritage system policy as it applies to the region. Milton’s zoning bylaws must conform to the Milton official plan and the region’s official plan. But the region’s plan is currently mired in challenges at the Ontario Municipal Board.
The Halton federation is one of the 38 appellants. It’s appealing the natural heritage designation in the region’s plan, Gevaert says.
Koopmans says Milton is also working with farmers on those appeals to try and get policy changes through the OMB that would exempt farmers wanting to build farm structures from having to complete the environmental study.
Gevaert and Opsteen say they are surprised Milton is proceeding with its zoning bylaw changes because the Halton official plan amendment hasn’t been approved yet. Koopmans says Milton’s bylaws, once they’re passed, won’t be effective until the appeals of Halton’s amendment have been resolved. BF