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Is Ontario ‘gobbling up our best farmland’? 80% of York Region's remaining whitebelt eyed for development

'We're losing 175 acres a day, which is the equivalent of 5 farms a week'
July 14, 2021
Dina Al-Shibeeb

Ontario is planning 30 years ahead, and has aspirations to develop the “whitebelt”, a move vehemently rejected by environmentalists, who sound the alarm over the loss of good-quality, yet scarce soil for farming in a province that still has plenty of opportunity to develop elsewhere.

Unlike the Greenbelt, which is protected, the whitebelt, located in the vicinity of urban boundary, is designated as prime agricultural areas that can be rezoned as residential. This has long created a divide on how it should be developed.

“Based on the results of applying the Provincial Land Needs Assessment methodology, we have determined that York region needs 80 per cent of the remaining whitebelt to address provincially forecasted growth to 2051,” said Paul Freeman, York Region's chief planner.

That means roughly around 4,960 hectares would be up for development, based on Neptis Foundation’s figures, an independent research group. According to Neptis, the region has 6,200 hectares in inventory of whitebelt or 14 per cent of the total 45,900.

York Region council was presented with Ontario’s preliminary land needs assessment in March.

There is now a consultation process seeking public, stakeholder and local municipal comments, Freeman said.

“A further report on the Region’s (Municipal Comprehensive Review) MCR growth outlook to 2051 and Draft Regional Official Plan will be presented to the regional council this fall.”

Some oppose this whitebelt intensification.

Keith Currie, a provincial director at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, who also represents members in Simcoe county, and Peel and York regions, explained how “gobbling up our best farmland is not good planning.”

“There's enough growth area without getting into the whitebelt now for probably the next 25 years,” said Currie, who was appointed to the province’s climate change panel.

“We're losing 175 acres a day, which is the equivalent of five farms a week,” he said, explaining this is counterbalanced by a consolidation trend happening in the agricultural industry since the typical farm size isn’t 50 or 100 acres anymore, but around 200 acres.

Phil Phothen, Ontario Environment program manager at Environmental Defence, also rejected the intensification plans.

“What the province is proposing is not intensification, in fact it is the opposite as it encourages car-dependent, low-density sprawl,” Phothen said.

“Ontario’s policies are calculated to keep newcomers and young people out of the existing, walkable and transit-friendly neighbourhoods where they want to live, and to force them into sprawl subdivisions on precious farmland far from services.”

Citing evidence from Neptis Foundation and individual municipalities, Phothen said, “There is ample land available within southern Ontario's existing cities and towns to accommodate even the most inflated projections of population and job growth over the next 30 years.”

“There is no public interest served by expanding our settlements into the Greenbelt -- or into the farms and forests within whitebelt land that is currently restricted to rural uses.”

Vaughan-based farmer Kim Alexander-Cook said looking at everything as a whole gives a deeper perspective, noting there is “huge pushback from people who don’t want to have apartment buildings on their block.”

“It's always about not in my backyard,” said Alexander-Cook, who said he's spent hours at Vaughan council meetings hearing deputations against highrise buildings.

Ontario, in the past 20 years, he said, has shifted from having a little less than 9 million acres of farming to now more than 9 million acres.

So a loss of these couple of thousands of hectares of lands in "one of the largest municipalities in Canada and the north of the GTA” within the total of 9 million acres, isn’t “unreasonable.”

However, “now there are lots of arguments, you'll hear about high-quality farmland versus less quality, that's absolutely true.”

Alexander-Cook said he would be interested to know “what percentage of soil of that quality is going to be lost?”

“There are a lot of very good growers, including in Ontario, that are growing massive amounts of food in a fraction of the area that they used to use.”