Agriculture is essential to the local economy and way of life, but development is booming — how do we find the right balance?
In one of the best growing seasons in recent memory — local farmers have been spared both droughts and deluges — there seems to be a new crop sprouting in fields around Kawartha Lakes. Nestled amid the corn, soybeans and barley stubble are something new: billboards touting the fields’ availability for development. If you have sharp eyes, you might also spot stakes popping up on land farmers have worked for generations.
“We’re now starting to be recognized as a community where developers want to come to develop,” says Richard Holy, the city’s director of development services. With Highway 407 making the commute to the GTA easier, and the growing acceptance of working from home, not to mention hair-raising housing prices in the city, our area is suddenly looking even more attractive to would-be homebuyers and the developers keen to sell them those homes.
While Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls and some of the smaller communities are seeing new housing projects, most of the action is around Lindsay. South of town, developers have bought hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land near I.E. Weldon S.S. and, with council’s support, have received a minister’s zoning order (MZO) that permits its development.
There are some higher density projects, like the eight-storey tower going up on St. Joseph Road in Lindsay, and a bit more interest in low- and mid-rise buildings on the part of both customers and builders, Holy says. But the reality is that when people are looking to move to our area, they’re looking for a house, usually detached, with a lawn. So, if you want to build for those buyers, there’s not enough land inside town limits.
As Shakir Rehmatullah, owner of Flato Developments, told The Advocate Podcast in December 2021, “If you look into all the surrounding areas around Lindsay, everything is a farm. Growth is coming. We cannot say no to the growth. But we have to do development and we have to do growth in a sustainable manner. We have to build a community which is sustainable.”
The area his company has bought southeast of Lindsay is prime farmland, while Flato’s planned development near Cameron also includes agricultural land. (There are three classes within the designation of “prime agricultural land,” plus three classes that can support activities such as hay crops and pasture, and one that is not suitable for agriculture.)
Farmland can be lost to industrial use or infrastructure such as highways and landfills, as well as to development, but whatever the reason, the pace is accelerating. In June, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture announced the province is losing 319 acres of farmland every single day, up from 175 just six years ago.
“It’s not sustainable. You can’t watch farmland disappear forever,” says OFA president Peggy Brekveld. “Five per cent of our land base is arable,” she says, “and at five per cent, our farmland should be considered precious.”
She and her husband have a cash-crop and dairy operation near Thunder Bay. Although they’re not exactly in Ontario’s agricultural heartland, they saw the process up close when a 45-acre field they were renting was divided into three housing lots.
As a real estate agent who also has a small farm near Dunsford, John Harris has a unique perspective. Having grown up near Stouffville, “I’ve been watching this for 50 years,” he says. “Unless somebody stands up and makes a lot of noise, I don’t know if it’s going to stop.”
Even though we seem to be experiencing a rush of development locally, some aspects of the apparent boom are coincidental. For instance, the signs in a field north of Downeyville boasting 22 new lots are on land that, says Holy, was designated for development under the auspices of the former Victoria County. And the enormous Tribute and Sugarwoods developments off Angeline Street North and Colborne Street West in Lindsay are the fruit of another decades-long project, the Northwest Trunk sewer.
Although the path was cleared fairly recently for the proposed Flato development on the opposite side of town, houses won’t be popping up just yet. “It’s going to take a number of years,” Rehmatullah told the podcast. “The plan we have is about a 25-to-30-year plan. So it’s going to happen in stages … We’re going to grow very slowly. We’re going to be very respectful.”
Working under both growth projections and land-use legislation from the province, Kawartha Lakes is looking out to 2051 in its own planning process, says Holy. “At some point in time, if we’re going to accommodate our growth allocation that the province gives us, we’re probably going to have to move on to agricultural land somewhere.” When expanding local communities do inevitably displace farm fields, the goal is to ensure the land is used as efficiently as possible. Tighter rules also mean the days of individual farm owners nickel-and-diming away prime land for building lots are gone.
The wild card, of course, is the minister’s zoning order. In a 5-4 vote in October 2021, council supported Flato’s request for an MZO on the farmland it had bought near Lindsay. An MZO overrides local rules such as the city’s official plan. That doesn’t mean the developer gets carte blanche, but it does mean that property the city hadn’t slated for development is now going to need, among other things, water and sewer service and new roads.
The city is still negotiating with Flato and Bromont, the Ravines of Lindsay developer that has also bought land southeast of town, to finalize framework agreements covering the terms the developers agreed to. In the area covered by the MZO, the builders will have to defray the enormous infrastructure costs. “The premise of the development charges is that growth pays for growth,” Holy says. The city then assumes the usual costs associated with any built-up area such as garbage and recycling collection, road upkeep, maintenance.
Despite the Progressive Conservative government’s frequent use of MZOs — it has issued more of them than all provincial governments from 1995 to 2018 combined — there are practical limits to the amount of prime agricultural land the province can stand to lose. “You can’t just ship everyone up to the Shield where you can’t grow anything,” says Harris.
Brekveld points to Waterloo as a model. The city has created something called the Countryside Line, beyond which farmland is not to be touched for any other purpose. That firm boundary has led to innovations such as creating apartments on top of warehouses and building more housing around transit stops. Of course, Waterloo is a much larger city with a more concentrated population, but, Brekveld notes, its planning process also revealed that soon its population may well need more rental accommodation for seniors and young adults than big single-family homes.
The local reality, Holy says, is that the huge costs of servicing agricultural land for potential development make it unlikely we will see unbridled subdivisions of the kind that seem to anyone travelling into the GTA to spring up between trips. Given our distance from major population centres, “There is only so much growth that we’re going to attract.”
When we’re thinking about the desire for development, we also need to remember the connection between farmland and the food on our plates, says Brekveld. “Farmers are businesspeople as well as caretakers of the land. They are efficient with land, they’re efficient with water, they’re efficient with the resources they put into a crop. But there’s a limit.”
Locally, the trend is to fewer, larger farms. And while numbers of beef cattle are waning, cash-cropping — growing crops to sell rather than just to feed the farm’s own livestock — continues to increase, says Kelly Maloney, the city’s economic development officer for agriculture. Agriculture remains our main economic driver, and no matter how efficient a farmer is, cash crops will always need land. Indeed, the city’s agriculture and food action plan lists protection of farmland as one of its top five priorities.
Alongside the development boom, there are also some encouraging signs in local agriculture, she says. “The number of farmers and the number of farms are decreasing, but we are seeing a trend again to younger farmers coming back and staying in the business, where 15 to 20 years ago that was quite different. Agriculture and food has a bright future.”
Those farmers also have safeguards under Ontario’s Farming and Food Production Protection Act. It recognizes that the business of agriculture involves sounds, smells, sights and slow-moving machinery that people moving to the area from the city might not expect or understand.
Ultimately, the way of life we appreciate as residents of Kawartha Lakes is the same thing people are looking for when they choose to move here, and the same thing developers are marketing. Agriculture is central to that life, so it wouldn’t make sense to pave over all of our farmland, says Holy, just as it wouldn’t make sense to allow the city to change to the point where it’s no longer what attracted new residents in the first place.
“I believe that people are coming here because of our community values and our lifestyle. They do bring an additional richness, and I think that’s something that’s really good for our community as well.”