A couple of weeks ago, the Ontario provincial government put its money where its mouth is. After designating the Oak Ridges Moraine, the long strip of forest and marshland that runs across the top of Toronto shown in green and beige on the map above, off-limits to further development, and getting elected on that platform over the howls of real estate speculators whose land promptly plunged in value, the government has decided to go even further, and protect the farmland caught between the Greater Toronto Area’s exploding urban sprawl and the Moraine.
The protection of the Moraine was a bit of a surprise in the first place. The Moraine is not only critical to the remaining wildlife in South-Central Ontario, it is also the source of most of the area’s unpolluted water and, through the photosynthesis in its dense plant cover, most of the area’s oxygen as well. With the Greater Toronto Area becoming home for 50% of all new Canadian immigrants and 40% of all net new population growth in the country, even the most short-sighted planners agreed that a ‘buffer’ was needed to keep Toronto one of the world’s healthiest cities, considering its size.
In Canada, municipalities create their own land use plans, but they can be overridden by provincial authorities unless they “make sufficient provision to accommodate the needs of the larger community”. In Ontario, the provincial authority is the Ontario Municipal Board, which is dominated by friends of developers and which has never rejected an appeal by a developer to overturn a municipal rezoning denial. The OMB seems to believe that the very act of appealing a municipal rezoning denial proves that the rezoning denial was ‘unreasonable’. In other words, municipal land use plans are largely a waste of time and energy, and the ‘market’ determines when and where development will occur.
Until a couple of weeks ago, the resulting battleground was on the Moraine lands themselves. As the Moraine Act was promulgated, many unscrupulous real estate developers and speculators were furiously bulldozing land, even without zoning approval, in the expectation that once development had started, the province wouldn’t dare force the developer to undo what they had done. When the province refused to back down and ordered immediate cessation of Moraine development, the rich developers hired armies of sleazy lawyers to intimidate the government with threats of multi-million dollar lawsuits for unreasonable restraint of trade. In most cases this bullying succeeded. The government was unwilling to face the wrath of angry taxpayers if they lost the lawsuits, even though their own legal experts said the risk was small.
You can probably guess what happened next. With the possibility of development being blocked on the Moraine lands (development was already blocked on the Niagara Escarpment, protected as a world nature preserve), the value of the farmland (light pink) between the city (dark pink) and the Moraine and Escarpment was soaring, as real estate speculators exploited this new scarcity of developable land to bid the price of farmland up. This has been happening for years, and, as I suspect is true in many urban areas of North America, a lot of farmers and a lot of developers got very rich very quickly just by sitting on land and waiting for urban sprawl to reach it. After all, the OMB virtually assured that development would proceed. The population of the GTA is growing at a rate of 100,000 people per year, and that rate is accelerating. Various projections suggest that by the end of this century the GTA’s population will grow from today’s 6 million to between 30 and 50 million people, a single urban agglomeration that will stretch from Niagara Falls to Muskoka and from Kitchener to Peterborough and beyond.
Most of the agriculture at the frontiers of the GTA is subsistence: grain, silage, corn and grazing land. Twenty years ago the ROI on this land was already poor, and many farmers sold out to the steadily-increasing offers from developers and real-estate speculators. Many of them have undoubtedly banked their profits, reinvested it in other farmland a little further out, and continued to farm the land for its new owners until it is rezoned for subdivisions.
On November 14, the government introduced a new bill freezing almost all agricultural lands in the Golden Horseshoe, the area stretching from East of Toronto around Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls. This bold legislation was designed to do two important and visionary things:
You could hear the screams all the way out to where I live (the little blue ‘x’ in the centre-left of the map). The agricultural land was suddenly no longer worth its value as a suburban subdivision, but instead only the value of the agricultural production it yielded. The subsistence farmers who were holding out for higher offers from the developers were suddenly out of luck — this law will cost them millions in lost profits. And the developers who had bought up agricultural land in anticipation of rezoning and subdividing it were also out millions — their gamble, which thanks to the OMB had previously been almost risk-free, suddenly wasn’t going to pay off after all.
Our local paper quotes farmers saying that if they aren’t “compensated” for the loss of speculative profit, they’ll “riot” (their word, not mine). Marches on the provincial legislature are promised. The governing Liberals are being threatened with an orchestrated campaign to defeat them in the next election. The armies of lawyer-whores are being trotted out again to threaten the “constitutionality” of the new bill.
How this will play out is unknown. The provincial Liberal government is not politically astute (they were pilloried when they reneged on their pre-election promise not to raise taxes, when they found out the previous Conservative government’s tax cuts for the rich had nearly bankrupted the provincial treasury). But they’re not stupid. They knew what they were getting into supporting the Moraine legislation, and they know that an agricultural land freeze is the only hope to achieve the two bulleted objectives above.
On the other hand, the combination of skyrocketing population and reduction in available land is creating a pressure cooker. Existing real estate property in the GTA is soaring in value, a double-edged sword. People want more land, not less, to raise their families on. Many of the brownfield lands are polluted, and some of the pollution was caused by public institutions and government departments — reclamation will be very expensive, and no one is willing to pay for it. And while most voters abhor the payoffs, kickbacks and other corruption that commonly accompany real estate speculation, they may not be prepared to give up their personal goals of affordable housing to rein it in. And let’s not forget most politicians are lawyers, and know how effective well-paid hordes of lawyers can be at paralyzing government action and extorting concessions from lawmakers.
As for the farmers, who lauded the Oak Ridges Moraine act, they’ve shown their true stripes in their violent opposition to this new bill which was designed to protect their livelihood. Agriculture is already heavily subsidized by government, to the point where the average citizen has no idea what the real cost of food is. At best, the farmers whose land is now frozen will learn from their Niagara counterparts and develop much more intensive and efficient agricultural uses for their land, and expect the government to increase subsidies for their crops (so that they can compete with the even more highly subsidized American products). This of course will show NAFTA to be the sham it is — a fraud perpetrated by corporatists to allow them to subvert government social and environmental regulations. At worst, the farmers will sell out to agri-corporations like ConAgra, allowing their land to be used for factory farms where systematic abuse and suffering of animals, and massive poisoning of the air and water with chemicals and animal wastes, will more than offset the benefits that protecting the Moraine provided.
And even if brownfield development and intensification of both urban and agricultural land succeeds without ruining the environment, where then will the rest of the 30 to 50 million Ontarians live? Will the sprawl just jump the agricultural band and the Moraine band and continue unabated beyond them, chewing up other agricultural land and making commuting times into the city even longer? Without a solution for the GTA population explosion, no amount of responsible land use regulation will be enough.
It’s a grim situation, and I’m not optimistic. Government, agriculture and real estate developers are among the least innovative sectors of the economy, and they’re more likely to give up than face the enormous challenges that this new legislation poses, in order to realize the huge one-time opportunity it presents. The fact that farmers want one-shot “compensation” for the loss in speculative value of their property demonstrates this lack of imagination and agility.
My guess is that the provincial government will relent in the face of massive orchestrated opposition by farmers, developers, lawyers and real estate speculators, and only protect agricultural land in the more productive and less population-stressed Niagara region. Sprawl with then resume and continue for another 20 years until it bumps up everywhere against the Moraine, and then it, too, will be sacrificed.
The outcome is important not just for Ontarians, but for the whole of North America. It will tell us whether courageous legal and political actions will be part of the reforms needed to save our world from catastrophe, or whether politicians, lawyers and law enforcement are just part of the problem.
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