By Connor Lynch
LANARK COUNTY — Huge areas of Ontario farmland could be locked up, becoming unusable for farming, because they’re too close to a “natural heritage system.” Farmers across the province have been duking it out with their municipalities over the issue, but the province sets the rules.
It won’t stop farmers from using land they’re already farming, but any land being cleared for cultivation would be affected if it’s near a natural feature like a swamp or a forest. The rule is that land cannot change its use if that change could affect the land’s current ecological balance.
If it sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, to many farmers it is. Lanark County cash crop farmer John Vanderspank bought a 200-acre parcel of land about a year and a half ago. Right around the same time, the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority held a public meeting, announcing that his parcel, among others, was part of a “natural heritage system.” The designation locked up 60 acres of his land around wetlands. Vanderspank doesn’t expect he’ll ever be able to farm it. He said he never would have found out the property had been labeled a wetland if he hadn’t called his township. “Nobody phoned me or let me know.”
The land wasn’t expropriated, so Vanderspank doesn’t get compensation. He can apply to have the property taxes lowered but that’s peanuts compared to what he says the land cost him, around $5,000 an acre. His main issue now is that he was never compensated for the value of the land he can no longer use.
The natural heritage designation was first introduced in the 1996 Provincial Policy Statement and requires municipalities to introduce official plans that protect natural heritage systems, including wetlands, bodies of water, and forests that are considered significant to the diversity of plants, animals and fungi that live there.
A farmer wanting to farm near a natural heritage feature on his own land has to pay for a costly environmental assessment and prove that his farming practices won’t impact the diversity of plants and animals.
The provincial policy could even affect farmland that hasn’t been farmed for a couple of years but is part of a natural heritage system, said Ottawa ag-lawyer Kurtis Andrews.
The Township of Mississippi Mills, west of Ottawa, has had a local war on its hands over the issue. Some 350 people, including many farmers, showed up to shout down township council at Almonte late last year, demanding answers, said the president of a local taxpayer group, Brian Gallagher. “People didn’t know about it, didn’t understand it, were concerned about the implications. One young lady said, ‘I don’t know what you’re proposing, but we’re not interested.’ ”
Despite opposition, Mississippi passed its draft official plan, including the natural heritage system in June. It must be approved by Lanark County council.
The municipality doesn’t actually have much of a choice, said Andrews. “Official plans have to comply with the provincial policy statement.” Municipalities can do the minimum to comply, but they still need to identify “natural heritage systems” and painful restrictions, including up to 120-metre buffer zones.
However, there’s hope for farmers as the provincial government can change the rules. Said Andrews: “The Ford government has as much latitude as it wants to revise it.”
Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesperson Michael Jiggins noted that “as part of our mandate to reduce red tape, we will be looking at the Planning Act and associated regulations.”
Municipalities are required to do the groundwork in deciding what does or does not qualify as a natural heritage system. But with no deadlines in place, official plans roll out on their own schedules. Mississippi Mills has been reworking its official plan for nine years.
While landowners carry the entire burden of new land designations, community relations coordinator for the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, Shannon Gutoksie, said that the benefits of wetlands and natural heritage systems are diverse, including providing habitat for wild species, mitigating flooding, improving water and air quality, and providing room for hunting and fishing.
A government study released in 2013 actually put a dollar figure to the value of Ontario’s wetlands: $14 billion, an estimate based on all the hard-to-measure benefits of natural features like flood mitigation, water filtration and hunting opportunities.