“This is a small test”: The mayor of Stouffville wants the province to accelerate an “agriculture” that combines new housing with agriculture. The locals are not so sure

Have you ever seen a good project in another city and wondered: could we do it here? We should? We too, and as part of an ongoing series, will take ideas from around the world and show them through the lens of Toronto. First: an agriculture in BC that mixes housing and agriculture.

When Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Iain Lovatt looks at the subdivisions being built around the GTA, all he sees is… pretty much the same.

The same row of houses, similar style developments, the same “builders’ houses.”

And he knows that for the most part, with thousands of approved homes on the southern edge of the city, near McCowan and Stouffville Road through two ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, his city will eventually look the same.

So when Lovatt was approached about another MZO, a tool that allows the minister of municipal affairs to change the zoning of the land for accelerated development, in the area for 1,000 more houses on 30 hectares of land, he approached the developer , ORCA Equity Lands. , to consider a new idea: a so-called agriculture.

“Our roots are all in agriculture … and much of our municipality is a protected field and is cultivated today,” said Lovatt, who is still awaiting the provincial decision on the MZO.

Lovatt’s vision for agriculture consists of a community garden, a farm that grows produce to sell at a local farmers market, and a barn renovated to serve as a community space that flanks a “market street” that welcomes visitors from the whole region.

“Development is coming and growth is coming to our community,” he said. “I just thought, ‘Is there a way we can do something different?'”

Agrihoods, which has become popular in the US and is making its way into Canada and finally into the GTA, claim to combine the positives of a walkable community with the benefits of a local “farm-to-table food supply.” “. But to their critics, they are nothing more than a marketing tool designed to make development on or near environmentally sensitive lands more acceptable.

“It’s a sales job just to try and make people feel good about developing existing farms,” said local councilor Sue Sherban. “In the case of Stouffville, there was no thought about how this would work.”

She said the development is being proposed without any real plan or discussion with the wider community about whether it is something they want. It is not even clear if the land, which borders Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine, is suitable for such development.

In contrast, the Southlands development in Tsawwassen, BC, heralded as a model for agriculture in Canada, took decades to materialize and involved extensive discussions with residents, the municipality, and with those who have successfully built agrihoods in the United States.

Sean Hodgins, president of development company Century Group, said the project, located in lower British Columbia, has been in development for 24 years. Hodgins said his family bought the land in 1989, in “the ashes of another company’s failed development” and had to gain buy-in from the city and locals to move the project forward.

“The history of this property is agricultural, and (the model) really responded to some deep-seated community concerns that agriculture was going to get lost in the confusion,” he said.

“It is not something binary: it is not paving it or conserving it as agriculture. It’s more like, how will the farm respond to the community? “He added.” If you say you want an urban farm, what is the certainty that the farm will be there in decades?

“You have to go from thinking of a vast swath of agricultural land that is seen simply as a buffer for development … to one that is really accepted and valued for people to fight for.”

A converted barn is part of a new agricultural development in British Columbia called Southlands that has been in the works for 24 years.

The 110-acre development includes houses, apartments, cabins and condominiums adjacent to 425 acres of publicly owned farm, which Hodgins transferred to the municipality. The company leased 50 acres and hired a farmer to handle it. It also paid $ 9 million to help with irrigation and winter flood mitigation of farmland.

The mostly depleted development also includes community gardens, a farmers market, cafeterias and heritage barns that have been renovated into community spaces.

Hodgins admitted that “it is difficult to reconcile” urban and rural landscapes, saying that each agricultural project is completely different from the next. He said that while he believes “it can be done elsewhere, I don’t think developers who say they can do it are really committed to doing it.”

Proof of the complexity of such a project is already being seen throughout the country.

In Quebec, residents living in an agricultural development called Hendrick Farm took legal action in July against the developer who allegedly breached his promise to build an organic farm on the property and instead opened that space for the use of the community.

In a statement, Fred Brisco, vice president of development company Landlab, said the farm “was not sustainable in the long term.”

“After eight years of operating the 5 acre farm with all the farm staff and decrease in sales in recent years It became obvious that we had to change the way the space was operated to substantially reduce the labor costs associated with it, while still preserving it as an agricultural space. “

Now, instead of a farm, they have a large area for community agricultural plots, a space for a chicken coop, wildflower meadows, berry patches and bee hives, and community gathering places.

Ontario’s first agricultural project is already underway in Drayton, a stoplight town, about 50 kilometers north of Kitchener, near the Conestoga River, where Trevor Prior, with Prior Construction Corporation, said they hope to build a tourist spot.

“Our vision is to make it a destination: do a restaurant, a microbrewery, grow and sell local food, and approximately 15 acres will continue to be cultivated,” Prior said, adding that the adjacent housing development has been underway for more than 20 years. “We think it will add a lot to the community, but there is also a desire for ‘agritourism’ for hikers going on the weekends.”

He added that the development will also include a driving range and nature trails.

Back in Stouffville, the locals receive the proposed agriculture with some skepticism.

Kim Empringham, a local farmer based in Stouffville, said it is important to remember that the development will be built on farmland that is currently in use. “I understand that growth must happen, but paving a farm to build a ‘farm-friendly’ development doesn’t really make sense.”

He said it is difficult to know if the developer is really behind the idea or if, given the request for an MZO, it is “just a way to make their houses build faster.”

She notes that the developer has little to lose, as the “community farm area” is proposed for land that is within the Oak Ridges Moraine protected field designation, and cannot be built.

Lovatt said he understands the community’s concern, but said this “could become a destination for the larger community” and is “committed” to consulting with the community, if the MZO is approved.

“I’ll be the first to admit that this is a bit of a test,” Lovatt said. “I think there has to be a way to do things differently. The vision here is to build communities around community farming. “

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based Star reporter covering city news with an interest in municipal 905 politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved


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