Farm severance off the table

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by Nelson Zandbergen
courtesy of Farmers Forum

The Ford government has pulled the plug on a controversial proposal that would have permitted some farmers to convert some of their prime agricultural land into housing lots. A dozen farm organizations came out swinging against the farm lot severance idea after it was proposed in April.

It’s been decades since farmers were allowed to “sever” — or carve out — single residential lots from prime agricultural land, under a long-defunct policy that allowed them to build retirement homes. The recent proposal would have again permitted some farms to sever as many as three housing lots, which Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark later assured unhappy farm leaders was only meant to accommodate generational change on the farm.

“It has never been our intention for severed lots to be transferred or sold to non-family/farm owners, nor for these lots to have anything more than single-family homes,” the minister wrote in a May 29 letter to the President and Vice-President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). But the proposal to allow up to three severances is now off the table.

“We will not be moving forward with the proposal on rural lot severances,” Clark’s press secretary, Victoria Podbielski, said in a May 31 statement.

“Farming is often a multi-generational family enterprise, and our government has been asked by many farmers to make it easier for the next generation to live and work in the same place where they grew up,” she said by email. “At the same time, we have clearly heard the concerns that have been raised about the need to preserve Ontario’s farmland – and we share that goal.”

The government is still accepting public feedback on the proposal through the Environmental Registry of Ontario and recently extended the submission deadline to Aug. 5. The OFA, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and 10 other farm organizations had banded together on May 18 to complain about allowing more rural severances at a time when Ontario is already reported to be losing 319 acres of farmland daily to development. The prospect of more houses going up amid farms would also make it “difficult or impossible” for livestock farmers to operate, expand and grow their farms, according to the groups’ joint statement, which urged the government to instead direct development to urban and rural settlement areas.

The Ontario Farmland Trust, which opposed the new severance allowance, estimated that between 145,000 and 510,000 housing lots would be carved out of Ontario farms, equivalent to losing 1.25% to 4.3% of the Province’s farmland. Oxford County planner Dustin Robson told Farmers Forum that his county alone would have seen as many 18,500 new residential lots carved out of local farms.

Huron-Perth OFA director and Seaforth dairy farmer Ethan Wallace applauded the proposal withdrawal. Wallace said he was “very thankful the government took the opportunity to listen and hear us, and to change their plans after seeing how it could affect rural Ontario and agriculture.”

He acknowledged that Ontario does “need to find a way” to build 1.5 million homes over the next decade — a Ford government goal — in light of the housing crisis. However, Ontario farmers still have the option of building at least one extra house (called an “accessory” dwelling) on their farms under existing law, according to municipal officials. In many municipalities, they are eligible to build two new homes for a total of three dwellings on the farm. Another proposed update to the Provincial Policy Statement would standardize and limit the number of farmhouses on one farm property to three across the Province.

Minister Clark introduced a separate, unrelated piece of legislation, Bill 97, related to rental housing which has no bearing on the farm-lot issue but, because of the timing, is often conflated with the severance proposal.

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