By Connor Lynch
PERTH 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. Beef farmer and Perth South Coun. Bill Jeffrey, said that “watercourses,” including drainage ditches, streams and creeks, are of particular concern. Proposed 30-metre buffer strips along them would cut land off from development or farming, if the land is not being farmed now. Said Jeffrey: “Every 220 feet of watercourse takes one acre of land out of production.”
It gets worse. Environment Canada has recommended a target of 30 per cent vegetation cover and 10 per cent wetlands cover for each county to ensure sustainability. Turning areas of the county into a “natural heritage system” achieves that aim.
“You can’t get it from roads or urban lands,” Jeffrey said. “You have to get it from farms.”
Since the Perth County only has about 15 per cent vegetation cover now, that could prevent 10s of thousands of acres in Perth County from becoming productive farm land.
Wading through the information on this issue can be exhausting. The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority’s report to Perth County council in March of this year is 168 pages, highly detailed and complex. It breaks down individual natural heritage areas into three types of ecosystems (terrestrial, aquatic and wetland), which can be further broken down into seven overlapping groups (such as thickets or meadows) that can be broken down yet again into 18 different types of areas, such as coniferous swamps, or deciduous woodlands.
Perth County, along with Oxford, Middlesex, Huron and Wellington are reviewing their official plans and could have their natural heritage rules kick in sometime next year.
The process has been a frustrating one for area farmers. The conservation authority, reviewing land to see if it’s part of a natural heritage system, is relying on aerial maps, not ground visits. Many farmers feel utterly left out of the loop.
Eastern Ontario 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. 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 figures he’ll never be able to farm.
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.
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 municipality doesn’t actually have much of a choice, said Andrews. “Official plans have to comply with the provincial policy statement.” But with no deadlines in place, official plans roll out on their own schedules.
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.”