‘We just turn them down’: The quiet battle to stop sprawl from paving over rural Ontario

The fight for the farm: The growing efforts to protect farmland from suburban sprawl
Click to play video: 'Anti-sprawl advocates make urgent pitch to prevent farmland from getting paved over forever' Anti-sprawl advocates make urgent pitch to prevent farmland from getting paved over forever
WATCH: Anti-sprawl advocates make urgent pitch to prevent farmland from getting paved over forever – May 26, 2022

As the Ontario election campaign enters its final stretch, the future of the province’s rural landscape and everything it connects to – the food, the people and a way of life – is under the microscope.

Some would say, even under attack.

In cities and towns all over the Greater Golden Horseshoe area, rural agricultural land is facing a major squeeze from development – and that’s making work more difficult for many farmers in the region.

Among the most pressing threats to farmland is a little-known policy tool the provincial government has at its disposal called Ministerial Zoning Orders, or MZOs. They’re essentially regulations that allow the province to rezone land without getting the consent of a municipality first.

In some cases, MZOs have been used to increase density. But environmental advocates, farmers and residents insist that MZOs can also be used to turn farmland into subdivisions.

As it is, the future is uncertain for a lot of farmers in the ‘urban shadow’ – as cities are pushed to expand, and more farmland is at risk of getting gobbled up. Some are resigned to the fact they’re being squeezed out; others are fighting sprawl, and provincial policies they say enable it, with all they’ve got.

Nineteen-year-old Hamilton farmer Benjamin Doek is in the latter camp.

His family farms 70 acres near the Steel City’s borders. If the city grows any further, he worries that farming in Hamilton will become very difficult – or, worse, that his land will get paved over forever.

Benjamin Doek’s farm on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario. Doek, a 19-year-old farmer, says he’s worried about sprawl taking over the land his family has farmed for decades. Kamyar Razavi / Global News

“If we’re not here, we’re nowhere,” Doek says, adding that he and his family will do everything they can to stay where they are.

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Doek’s property is protected by the Greenbelt, a massive expanse of land in southern Ontario that’s off-limits for development. But he sees the warehouses down the road and wonders what the future holds.

“We have been called by real estate agencies,” Doek says. “We just turn them down.”

‘Stop sprawl’ 

Hamilton resident Nancy Hurst never saw herself as a social movement organizer. But that’s exactly what she’s become.

Hurst refuses to give up the fight to protect farmland, even if it’s right on the edge of the urban boundary and already facing the squeeze.

“It’s beyond important to save this land,” she said.

About two years ago, she got together with a friend to start a group called Stop Sprawl Hamilton.

“It started with anger,” Hurst says of her growing social movement, which has now spread to other municipalities like Oakville, which is clinging to its last remaining acres of farmland.

Last fall, as the province was calling on municipalities like Hamilton to expand their boundaries at the expense of farmland, Hurst and her small team of organizers went on a mission: to convince the city’s planners that expansion was a bad idea.

“We have something like a 30-year supply of empty land already in our urban boundaries in Hamilton and beyond that is not being developed,” she said.

The group organized several campaign events and rallies, and brought together dozens of volunteers to pressure local politicians to ‘hold the line’ and not expand over farmland.

Supporters of ‘Stop Sprawl Hamilton’ rally against a proposal to expand the city’s urban boundary, which they say will lead to more sprawl. Nancy Hurst / Stop Sprawl Hamilton

“The pressure we applied was constant,” says Hurst, whose movement has now spread to neighbouring cities and regions. “By the end of our campaign, each and every councillor had 18,000 emails in their inbox. That’s hard to ignore. We made sure that they couldn’t ignore us.”

In November, Hamilton city council voted against the expansion and agreed that a better approach was to use existing urban land, and to encourage high-density, transit-oriented development.

Read more: MPP insists province isn’t ‘meddling’ in Hamilton’s urban boundary expansion discussions

The same thing happened in Halton Region. Earlier this year, its council also rejected calls to expand the urban boundary.

These communities have until July 2 to present their updated plans to the province for review. If Queen’s Park doesn’t like what it sees, it might push back.

‘Urban shadow’

For other farmers in the region, though, the battle’s already lost. As suburban and rural communities around Toronto get built out and land values soar, farming next to subdivisions and highways is becoming increasingly difficult.

“I don’t see how the next generation is going to be able to survive here,” says 32-year-old Halton farmer Brandon Saliba.

He doesn’t want to give up the farms that have supported his family for four generations.

“I just had a newborn son that I’m hoping one day can do the same thing that I do, and have the passion for it and enjoy it as much as I do.”

But he realizes the day may come when he’ll have to sell everything and move further afield, to largely agricultural areas of the province that don’t have to compete with traffic, subdivisions and neighbours upset with the smell of manure.

“With the way things are, it’s very difficult to farm here, within the urban shadow,” Saliba told Global News.

‘Induced demand’

There is another issue that’s concerning for people fighting sprawl: highways. They say new highways the Ford government wants to build are a recipe for more low-density subdivisions and farmland-killing sprawl.

But the Ford Conservatives have staked their electoral chances on the notion of ‘fixing’ Ontario’s roads. That includes building more highways around the Greater Golden Horseshoe area. This includes the GTA West project, better known as Highway 413. The 52-kilometre highway, if built, would cut through farmland in York, Peel and Halton regions.

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Read more: The road to Queen’s Park — parties divided on highways, united on transit

“That’s a sweet spot for him,” communications strategist Daniel Tisch told Global News. “(Ford) came to prominence in politics at Toronto city council, when he would rail on about the war against the car, so this is very natural territory for him.”

And yet, there is conclusive evidence that more roads don’t solve traffic problems. The concept attached to it is called ‘induced demand’ and some of the most detailed research on the subject was done by two former University of Toronto researchers, Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner.

Duranton and Turner found that building more roads only led to more congestion, as more drivers were ‘induced’ to drive on them.

But such arguments don’t always hold the most sway with voters, especially during elections, when politicians target voters with messages that strike an ‘emotional’ chord.

“In that moment when the driver’s stuck in traffic, there’s a lot of visceral appeal to what Mr. Ford is offering,” Tisch says.

Environment ‘not a priority’ 

For 15 years, between 2000 and 2015, Gord Miller served as the environmental commissioner of Ontario. It’s a position that the Ford Conservatives eliminated shortly after coming into office in 2018.

Miller has seen a lot of changes to the way Ontario safeguards the environment. But he worries about the recent “nibbling” around the edges of various rules and regulations. He says the changes are “never clear-cut” and “very shrewdly constructed.”

Ministerial Zoning Orders, he says, are just one way to get around environmental rules and consultation.

In the past, the province would invoke these when a community needed a hospital – fast – or when a major car manufacturer wanted to set up shop in Ontario, creating thousands of jobs.

They were never intended, Miller says, for standard development applications that have a huge impact on the landscape and require robust public input.

“There’s a complete dropping off of the consultation stage.”

The environmental review process in Ontario, he says, “certainly has been altered substantively, and has lost the rigour … that allowed a large degree of thoughtful planning.”

It’s a criticism the Ford government has certainly become used to and, Tisch says, not necessarily worried about. Doug Ford, he says, was never going to attract the voter for whom the environment was the number one priority.

“I think every party, in every election, has issues on which they play offence and then issues where they play defence,” Tisch says. The environment, he says, is an issue where the Ford government clearly plays defence. “They just want to get a tie, or a draw; they just want to neutralize the issue.”

Fighting for the farm

Meantime, ordinary Ontarians continue to fight for the farm, despite expansion plans, new highways and even cynicism from other farmers that it’s too late.

On a scenic lot in Burlington, Vanessa Warren farms 76 acres of land. Like the Doeks, she says she’s been approached “multiple times” by land speculators looking to purchase the property.

“They just drive up the driveway,” she told Global News.

Like other farmers, she’s become very politically active – attending council meetings and speaking out to protect the green space ringing Toronto’s suburbs.

Burlington farmer Vanessa Warren stands on her 76-acre property. Warren has become politically active to protect more green space in the suburbs around Toronto. Kamyar Razavi / Global News

Her farm is in the Greenbelt, too, which means it is technically safe from development. But the possibility that one day it might be turned into a subdivision lingers in the back of her mind.

“The reason that I own this property is because somebody did this before me,” Warren says.

“Somebody fought for the Greenbelt and held the line … and I really do feel like I need to pay that forward.”