HCFA hosts forum with MP, MPP - March 1, 2018
BY LISA B. POT
Increases in farm land taxes and worries over changes in the Natural Heritage Plan for Huron County were the among the issues discussed at the Huron County Federation of Agriculture (HCFA) Local Politicians’ Forum held Feb. 23 at the Clinton Legion.
The forum is held yearly as an opportunity for agricultural stakeholders and local politicians to discuss current issues affecting agriculture in the county. Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson said that life in rural Ontario needs to be affordable, which is why property tax and how much taxes farmers are expected to pay were at the forefront of the discussion.
“We need to pay taxes on our homes and buildings, of course,” said Bill Dowson of Varna. “We cannot afford to pay full property tax on farmland.”
Rob Vanden Hengel, who reported on behalf of the Property and Land Use Committee, agreed.
“The largest concerns [for us] are the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) valuations of land. Due to the large increase in land values, many in our membership are facing significant increases to tax burden on farmland,” stated Vanden Hengel.
Currently, Huron County assesses farmland at the maximum allowed limit of 25 per cent of the residential amount.
“We recognize municipal budgets are stretched but our farmland does not require the same amount of services as residential areas,” he said.
He explained that in 2016, farmland contributed 14.2 per cent of the tax generation within the county. Proposed changes would see that number grow to 21.6 per cent of the total tax base.
“Note, here, that farmland owners are still taxed at the full residential rate for their house and one acre. So there is no unfair advantage here to any other residential taxpayer,” said Vanden Hengel.
The HCFA proposes that in 2018, the tax ratio be adjusted to 22 per cent; in 2019 to 19 per cent and in 2020, 18 per cent.
“With this change, farmland will still be contributing the same portion of tax to the overall budget,” Vanden Hengel said.
An additional concern is the discrepancy between farmland that is owned and farmland that is rented said Huron County Warden Jim Ginn.
“If two farms side-by-side each have 20 acres of bush at the back, one owned and the other rented out, only the owned land gets taxed at 25 per cent. The rented one is charged the full residential rate,” explained Ginn. “MPAC is supposed to tax on land use, so how can one be charged at 25 per cent and the other at 100 per cent based on land ownership?”
Both should be taxed equally, he suggested.
“The whole issue of properly taxing land is on my radar,” said Thompson, after hearing the concerns.
She suggested that urbanites don’t fully understand conditions of land and how it can or cannot be used and that soon, as election time approaches, it will be time to bring these issues up. “Stay tuned on that one,” she suggested.
MP Ben Lobb said he can commiserate with municipalities and the problems they face trying to meet the service needs of people with less money. At the same time, he feels rural towns and farmers aren’t being properly rewarded for their environmental contributions as a “last line of defence for Lake Huron.” He raised the town of Bayfield as an example.
“This is an area of high growth and the municipality of Bluewater needs money to expand the sewer system and it’s not there,” said Lobb. “Who pays for what? This is a debate and for sure, there is not enough money going to rural communities.”
That led to a passionate speech from North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent, who said the idea of taxing full rate on woodlots is something “urban audiences have really goofed on” because trees are planted and protected for the good of society.
“Yes, we may take a harvest, but those woodlots are natural carbon sinks. And when I look at what farmers have done in this county to fix questionable wells to protect the aquifers and residents... well, I think MPAC is running on a tangent to reclassify stuff that in my mind should be rated at a zero tax bracket.”
“I agree one hundred per cent,” said Thompson.
A persistent worry from farmers as mentioned in the Property and Land Use Committee Report is that the Huron Country Natural Heritage Plan (HNHP) could be used to restrict a farmer’s ability to improved their productive farmlands.
“It is still to be seen whether the change will be for better or for worse for our agricultural community,” stated the report.
Ginn said as a farmer himself, “I have no worries in my mind that the plan will make it a problem for anyone to farm.” He said all the plan does is affect the setback when building a new building next to a provincially significant wetlands, woodlots or other natural areas. The distances are reasonable and exemptions can be requested.
That may be, said John Smuck, who questioned why mapping for the plan wasn’t done on foot. “Mapping was done without boots on the ground, he said. I think this is just another form of bureaucracy and red tape.”
Discussion on the topic mentioned that the plan was a provincial directive, that the existing plan was old and new mapping was necessary and that it would be impossible to walk every farm in the county. Aerial photography was the best option.
Lobb said he’s hearing from other areas revising a natural heritage plan and two friends who farm there and “with one swoop, it was all zoned environmentally protected.”
There was enough land there for create 20 lots potentially worth several million dollars.
“It’s not the municipalities’ fault, but they never went to his property to see if a turtle crawled there. They did a broad brush approach. The point is, his land changed zoning and I don’t think that’s right, because once it is changed, he has to hire an engineer and meet with the ministry to prove why it needs to be changed and I think it should be opposite: the ministry should have to prove why it was changed.”
Dairy, egg, grain, beef and pork producers also presented at the Politicians’ Forum with Thompson and Lobb praising farmers for the stability and great working relationships they have with the commodity groups.