Farmers voice concern over Natural Heritage Plan at forum - March 9, 2017
BY LISA B. POT
Landowner fears over property rights as affected by the proposed Huron Natural Heritage Plan Implementation Strategy dominated the discussion at the Huron County Federation of Agriculture’s Local Politician Forum in Clinton late last month with one landowner saying there is no need for it while a councillor believes the perceived impact of the plan has been “grossly exaggerated.”
Concern and unrest has been growing in the county after two public forums were held last fall; one in Zurich and one in Belgrave. Since then, landowners who believe the plan is ill-timed, unnecessary, costly, could interfere with farming practices, is an unwanted provincial requirement, and will lead to thousands of acres of land being taken out of production have been writing letters and encouraging all county landowners to download and read the plan – something both sides agree on.
“People need to be encouraged to understand the facts,” says Scott Tousaw, Huron County’s Director of Planning and Development, who was interviewed for this story to get answers of the concerns being raised by landowners. “Comments are more than welcome on the county’s Natural Heritage Plan page.”
The issue isn’t just restricted to Huron County. Natural Heritage Plans are being discussed, debated, accepted and rejected across the province. The Perth County plan is in progress with implementation planned for this year. Lambton County’s plan is in process. Grey County plans to present its draft plan this year while Middlesex completed its plan in 2014.
The plan’s focus is to define natural heritage systems and identify tools to enhance and protect those features (forest, wetlands, shorelines, etc) for the long term. Huron is in the thick of it right now.
Bev Hill of Hill & Hill Farms presented his worries at the Zurich meeting and in an interview with The Rural Voice, said “the plan has significant implications on landowners’ rights.”
He believes regulations are a negative approach to preserving the diversity of natural features and believes incentives are the best way to improve natural areas.
“The landowners in Huron County, by way of incentives, have increased forest cover and protect waterways by means of things like fencing cattle out of creeks,” said Hill. “I believe in incentives versus regulations because landowners respond to incentive... they react to regulations.”
He presented data based on Huron County maps which suggests forest cover in the county increased from 12.9 per cent to 16.8 per cent. Also, since 2008, the Headwaters Initiative has been involved in the completion of 60 wetland projects and the planting of more than 250,000 trees and shrubs.
Moreover, participants in the Huron County Clean Water Project have planted 150 hectares of trees, 100 kilometres of windbreaks and fenced cattle out of 40 streams.
Hill suggested that with this kind of program uptake, there is little support for a Natural Heritage Plan and that instead of adding an additional level of bureaucracy to landowners, efforts and resources going into creating a plan for Huron should go towards “badly-needed gully and shoreline restoration along the lake.”
Furthermore, there should have been more public notice and participation by landowners.
Tousaw agrees that of all the input received on the draft plan, most has been on the concern side rather than the support side.
“This doesn’t surprise me. Particularly with board planning exercises. The people in support tend to speak less than those in opposition,” said Tousaw.
He agrees that due to “strong reaction” to the plan, there needs to be more public input. Plans for further public open houses plus an extension on the plan approval date are ongoing.
He said it’s important to remember that the plan is a study only and would require an amendment to the official plan to be implemented. Furthermore, the plan is just a different name for an already existing plan called the Natural Environment Plan. It definitely needed updating, said Tousaw. Plus, it’s a directive from the province.
“Provincial policy requires approval authorities like counties and municipal councils to plan for natural heritage systems,” said Tousaw. “In the past, when maps were done, it was a delineating exercise to map out areas according to use – urban, recreation, natural, agricultural. Now the policy requires the protection of natural environment systems, the whole system via a Natural Heritage Plan.”
He believes it’s wise planning to look at these systems with updated maps from 2006 and soon, new pictures from 2015. “It’s good land use planning to plan using the latest information. We have the updated information so we need to use it.”
The research that went into forming the plan is valuable because it supports action to maintain and improve a healthy ecosystem, Tousaw said.
“Through a systematic approach, we now have a scientific methodology that identifies what is important for the natural environment system,” said Tousaw. “All of this ties strongly to productive agricultural lands. We need a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the environment because a healthy ecosystem supports healthy agriculture.
Farmers agree, but they have concerns about future progress and the freedom to build without excessive red tape.
Neil Vincent, Reeve of North Huron, said the plan will be just one more thing the building inspector has to look at before approving a project. “This plan is just another layer of bureaucracy for farmers to ask permission to build.”
Adjacent land uses are a big concern to farmers like Ethan Wallace, a dairy farmer who spoke at the forum.
He said he has a swamp in his bush and according to his understanding of the plan setback guidelines, it could affect how he farms his land. “According to the new setbacks, I will lose productive farmland out of my operation to create a buffer. That buffer could take four-and-a-half acres out of production... will the Natural Heritage Plan pay me for that loss?”
He felt the data and wording in the plan was vague and therefore, confusing to landowners.
A report by the Huron County Property and Land Use Committee reiterated that concern. “Although it is stated the Natural Heritage Plan does not intend to limit agricultural uses, there is a significant level of ambiguity in the proposal that will lead to diverse interpretations, which will only add cost and restrictions to agriculture.
Howick Reeve Art Versteeg said fears over setbacks and buffers have been exaggerated. “There is no wording in the Natural Heritage Plan that will take farmland out of production. The setbacks pertain to new developments. The impact on farms really would be minimal.”
Tousaw agrees. He said the draft plan originally stated there should be 120-metre setbacks around natural features, up from the current standard of 50 metres around natural features and 120 metres around “provincially significant” natural features.
“County council made a decision to stay with the 50-metre standard,” said Tousaw.
As to land usage, Tousaw said land use assessments would only be conducted for “major developments” and how the development would affect adjacent natural features.
“We see three to five of these a year in Huron County and they are almost all major developments like a subdivision or condominium,” said Tousaw.
He said if a farmer is building an implementation shed close to a natural feature, it is highly unlikely they would be required to do an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). If, however, someone applied to build a livestock facility adjacent to a natural feature like a significant wetland, then yes, an EIS would we wise. However, this is not a new requirement.
Bluewater Mayor Tyler Hessel said his biggest concern about the plan is that while it’s a good plan for the Greater Toronto Area, it does not work for a rural area. “It was not written with the rural lens in mind,” said Hessel at the forum. Bluewater is currently in the process of revising its official plan and has decided it will not adopt the Huron Natural Heritage Plan as is.
Huron-Bruce MP, Ben Lobb, suggested there are larger environmental issues to be addressed besides the Natural Heritage Plan.
“When thousands of litres of raw sewage are being dumped into fresh water lakes, I would say there’s a lot of work to be done before we look at Natural Heritage Plan designations,” said Lobb.
The plan is available online. In the executive summary, it’s stated that “at the property scale, many people that find that natural areas such as woodlots, river, ponds and meadows are the most attractive features of their property. In this working landscape, these are features are also collectively valued by the community and broader society. It is important to have a co-ordinated approach for protecting and enhancing natural heritage features that is supported by agencies, stakeholders and landowners across the County.”
So far, some landowners are being very vocal that they don’t support it how the county proposes to do it with the existing Natural Heritage Plan.