LINDSAY — Believing it’s wrong to build on prime agricultural land, cash-cropper Doug Shaw says he flatly refused a housing developer’s $10-million offer for his Lindsay-area farm. And Shaw is not alone in his opposition, which he says will eventually consume 1,500 acres in his rural neighbourhood, just east of Lindsay.
Farmers Forum spoke with another farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, who said he similarly rejected a 7-figure offer from the same developer.
Normally, class 1 and 2 agricultural land can’t be used for anything other than farming in Ontario, but that longstanding rule has been upended in the City of Kawartha Lakes, where the province has intervened with a municipal zoning order (MZO) on behalf of a major developer. An MZO simply allows the province to bypass all regulatory hurdles for favoured projects. This accelerates development — or makes development possible where it once wasn’t — by leapfrogging local planning restrictions and quickly granting approval through provincial decree.
The Ford government has been exercising the previously rare power at an unprecedented rate, issuing more than 30 MZO’s between 2019 and 2021. Fewer than 70 were issued in the previous 50 years. Very few cases involve agriculture.
Feeling hemmed in, Shaw said the involved developer bought 350 acres right behind his farm on Highway 36 and complained the move made it more difficult for him to expand. About 1,500 acres have been snapped up around him in the past year, he said.
“I would love to have bought that acreage behind my farm, but I can’t afford it now,” he said. “The price of land in this area has gone nuts.”
He bought his current 140-acre farm 20 years ago for $200,000. Now it’s worth millions, though he sent the developer’s representative packing after an unscheduled visit to his place with a hefty offer last fall. “He said, ‘I’ll give you $10 million for your land, and I said, ‘no.’”
He explained, “I’m a farmer. When you’re a farmer, and that’s what you do, you don’t give in.”
He’s not giving in to the “sin” of selling prime ag land for development, he added.
He also complained that once farmland surges in value because of development pressure, it eventually pushes out remaining farmers as their assessments and property taxes rise to untenable levels. There are also more suitable areas for development even within the Kawartha Lakes municipality, according to Shaw.
Since the Ford government began aggressively deploying MZOs, they’ve been more commonly issued in Southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has previously expressed “deep-seated concern” over the “proliferation” of MZOs when the province already loses 319 acres of existing farmland daily to development.
The measure is “short-sighted” and “deprives citizens impacted by these MZOs the ability to be consulted on proposed amendments to municipal Official Plans and Zoning By-laws,” the organization wrote in a letter to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark two years ago. The OFA also complained that MZOs don’t take Agricultural Impact Assessments into account.
The problem is compounded by the fact that municipalities can also bypass regulations by requesting an MZO from the province. The province can decline the request and the OFA has urged municipalities to not seek an MZO. Kawartha Lakes city council voted in October 2021 to request an MZO on behalf of Flato Developments. However, council last month voted to stop requesting MZOs until the municipality comes up with a future growth plan.