The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) recently released an informative webinar titled “Home Grown: The Impacts of Bill 23 on Agriculture Across Ontario.”

According to the OFA, this bill directly affects municipal land use planning and farmers’ rights. 

“Whether we realize it or not, land use planning affects every aspect of our day to day lives,” moderator Danielle Sharman said during her introduction. “From housing to food production, the environment, the local economy and more. We know we are losing farmland every day in this province and at the same time the province wants to build more homes.”

Farm policy analysts with the OFA, Emily Sousa and Ben LeFort, each with their specialties, provided background information on agricultural land use planning in Ontario, how individuals and county federations can engage in the land use planning process as critical stakeholders, updates to recent housing initiatives in Ontario and how these will impact agriculture. 

Agricultural Land

Use Planning

Sousa, who holds a master of science degree in rural planning and development and a bachelor of arts degree in international development studies (specializing in rural and agricultural development), talked about the importance of agricultural land use planning and the impacts of Bill 23.

The More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022 is an omnibus bill that includes changes to several acts, including the Planning ActDevelopment Charges ActConservation Authorities ActHeritage ActOntario Land Tribunal Act, and more, Sousa’s report said.

According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, Ontario was losing about 175 acres of farmland daily. According to the 2021 census, between 2016 and 2021, Ontario lost up to 319 acres of farmland per day. 

“The rate of farmland loss is increasing,” Sousa said, “and this means that we are losing our ability to provide safe, affordable and sustainable food, fibre and fuel for Ontario, Canada and the rest of the world.”

Sousa explained that the planning process must consider all reasons for the loss, including development, aggregates, commodity prices, and vacant land, and create policies to protect farmers and farmland.

“Any farmland that is not in production anymore will be counted as a loss, whether they are paved over for urban development or [for] other reasons… such as an aggregate or gravel mine has moved in, or maybe even farmers are leaving agriculture because of liability concerns.”

Official Planning Acts (OPA) are the long-term and publicly informed vision for how and when lands will be used in your community, including agricultural, rural, employment, mixed-use, residential, industrial, commercial, environmental, and open spaces.

These plans designate land uses and allocate resources. They are the primary tool for implementing the provincial policy statement (PPS) at a local level, and their policies have to be consistent with provincial policy. 

The change to the Planning Act introduces a new term, Sousa said – ‘upper-tier municipality without planning responsibilities’ – where all approvals and responsibilities are downloaded to the lower-tier level.

The OFA is vehemently opposed to this, Sousa said, as it could cause uncoordinated, scattered, expensive development and farmland loss. In addition, some lower tiers may not even have a planning department.

“It’s important to remember that some time ago the province actually introduced regional planning authorities to avoid this exact type of reason,” Sousa said. “So, in a sense, we are taking a step backwards in time.”

The OFA is opposed to eliminating third-party appeals, Sousa said, “because farmers need an avenue to appeal decisions that will affect their farm operations and agriculture generally,” and to reverse errors that are sometimes made like minimum distance separation (MDS) miscalculations, farmland loss, and more.

Sousa said the OFA “urges the government to look for alternative options to address the backlog of appeals and streamline processes at the tribunal.”

Sousa shared some good news: “Originally, all third-party appeals were proposed to be eliminated, but the government has back-pedalled and… retained third-party appeals for Official Plan Amendments and bylaw amendments.

“It is more important than ever to get involved in planning appeals,” Sousa added, “to ensure that your voice and input is provided so that municipal staff can account for your voice when making a decision.”

The proposed changes to the Planning Act removes the requirement for a public meeting for a draft plan of subdivision application. Sousa said this undermines good planning because community engagement is critical.

Public meetings are one way for agricultural voices to be heard and design ‘farm-friendly’ urban development.

Sousa said the OFA opposes this change and calls for greater use of agricultural impact assessments.

Changes to Section 23 of the Planning Act will allow the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to amend official plans where they believe the plan will affect a matter of provincial interest negatively, Sousa said.

The proposed changes remove procedural requirements for the minister to work with municipalities to remedy concerns before issuing a non-appealable decision, like a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO).

“The OFA has continuously emphasised our opposition to the frequent use of MZO’s in areas with a robust planning process and we view this newly passed mechanism as no different,” said Sousa.

“Ontario citizens deserve a transparent, accountable, and fair decision-making process, with the opportunity to provide comments on approving and amending official plans,” Sousa said. “Municipalities should be able to remedy their official plans according to their local community’s interests, needs, and contexts.”

Sousa said that the OFA requests that the ministry be transparent with the public and the municipality before amending the official plan and calls for an independent, non-partisan Office of the Legislative Assembly for oversight.

Development Charges 

LeFort then spoke about the changes to development charges (DC) and the OFA’s stance.

“The headline is that all of these changes will have the same effect, which is reducing the amount of development charges paid by developers and essentially transferring that cost to municipalities,” said LeFort.

The OFAs position is that DCs to be set at a rate that covers all growth-related costs to service new development. 

Bill 23 changes to DCs transfers some service costs for new development from developers to the current property tax base. As a result, some municipalities are announcing a 10 per cent property tax increase or more to cover the lost revenue.

LeFort said that the OFA’s position is that the province must provide infrastructure funding to municipalities to compensate for the costs of these changes to DCs.

The OFA will continue to advocate for farm construction to be exempted from DCs, LeFort said.

Outlining what has changed, LeFort noted seven changes that directly impact taxpayers:

1. A five-year phase-in of D.C. rate increases beginning with a 20 per cent reduction in the first year, with the reduction decreasing by five per cent each year until year five. At year five, a new full rate applies.

2. The historical service level for DC eligible capital costs extended from 10 to 15 years.

3. Parkland exemptions for attainable housing.

4. New regulation authority to set services for which land costs would not be an eligible capital cost recoverable through DCs.

5. Exclude costs of (background) studies from recovery from DCs.

6. Municipalities are required to spend a minimum of sixty per cent of DC reserves for priority services (water and roads, for example).

7. Discount for purpose-built rental units, with a higher discount for larger units, on top of the existing DC freeze and deferral of payments over five years.

The OFA’s position on the changes to the DCs is that they should be set at a rate that will cover all growth-related costs to service new development.

DCs are already struggling to cover total costs, and these changes will widen infrastructure funding gaps, LeFort said.

The OFA asks that the government reconsider these changes and at least provide funding for municipalities to avoid shifting the burden from developers to the property taxpayer.

Farmers cannot afford double-digit tax increases after years of increasing property taxes. Therefore, the OFA continues to push for a province-wide exemption from DCs on agricultural construction.

“Municipalities don’t want to see a situation where the tax levy for everybody, including residential, is increasing by significant amounts; in the magnitude of 10 per cent, that can be politically unfeasible,” LeFort said. 

Currently most municipalities do provide an exemption for on-farm development charges. However, LeFort thinks this could be at risk if everything proceeds unless additional funding is provided to municipalities.

“Those are the real big concerns that we have, the impact financially on farmers, in both property tax and development charges. We will continue to monitor that; I’m not sure what the impact will be in different communities in rural Ontario. It will be variable,” LeFort said. 

“I’ll be watching many municipal budgets this year for the commentary from the treasurers and CAOs as they comment on projections of the cost of these changes to each municipality and the impact that might have on current property taxpayers.”

By Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 24, 2023 at 07:00

This item reprinted with permission from   Advance Times   Wingham, Ontario
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