In one of the best growing seasons in recent memory, with local farmers surviving both drought and flooding, a new crop appears to be springing up in the fields surrounding the Kawartha Lakes. Nestled among the corn, soybeans and barley stubble is something new: billboards announcing the fields’ availability for development. If you’ve got a keen eye, you might also spot stakes popping up on land where farmers have worked for generations.
“We’re now beginning to be recognized as a community that developers want to come into and develop in,” says Richard Holy, the city’s director of development services. With Highway 407 making commuting to the GTA easier, and the growing acceptance of working from home, not to mention sky-raising real estate prices in the city, our area suddenly looks even more attractive to potential homebuyers and the developers who are interested in selling them these houses.
While Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls and some of the smaller communities see new housing developments, most of the action is centered around Lindsay. South of town, developers have purchased hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land near IE Weldon SS and, with Council support, obtained a Ministerial Zoning Plan (MZO) permitting its development.
There are some higher density projects, such as the eight-story tower being built on St Joseph Road in Lindsay, and a slightly greater interest in low- and mid-rise buildings from both clients and developers, says Holy. But the reality is that people who want to move to our area are looking for a house, usually detached, with a lawn. So if you want to build for these buyers, there isn’t enough land within the city limits.
As Shakir Rehmatullah, owner of Flato Developments said The Lawyer Podcast in December 2021: “If you look all around Lindsay, everything is a farm. growth is coming. We cannot say no to growth. But we must continue to develop and grow sustainably. We need to build a community that is sustainable.”
The area his company has purchased to the southeast of Lindsay is prime farmland, while Flato’s proposed development near Cameron also includes farmland. (There are three classes within the designation of prime agricultural land, plus three classes that can support activities such as haymaking and grazing, and one that is not suitable for farming.)
Farmland may be lost to industrial uses or infrastructure like highways and landfills, and to development, but whatever the reason, the pace is accelerating. In June, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture said the province was losing 319 acres of farmland each day, up from 175 acres just six years ago.
“It’s not sustainable. You can’t watch farmland disappear forever,” says OFA President Peggy Brekveld. “Five percent of our land base is farmland,” she says, “and at five percent, our farmland should be considered precious.”
She and her husband run a harvesting and dairy farm near Thunder Bay. Though they’re not exactly in Ontario’s agricultural heartland, they saw the process up close when a 45-acre field they rented was divided into three residential lots.
As a real estate agent who also owns a small farm near Dunsford, John Harris has a unique perspective. Growing up near Stouffville, “I’ve been watching this for 50 years,” he says. “Unless someone gets up and makes a lot of noise, I don’t know if it’s going to stop.”
While we seem to be experiencing a burst of development locally, some aspects of the apparent boom are coincidental. For example, the signs are in a field north of Downeyville containing 22 new lots on land that Holy said was earmarked for development under the auspices of former Victoria County. And the massive Tribute and Sugarwoods developments at Angeline Street North and Colborne Street West in Lindsay are the result of another decades-long project, the Northwest Trunk sewer.
Although ground has only recently been cleared for the planned Flato development on the opposite side of town, no houses are yet to spring up. “It will take a few years,” Rehmatullah told the podcast. “The plan we have is a 25 to 30 year plan. So it’s going to be gradual… We’re going to grow very slowly. We will be very respectful.”
Kawartha Lakes operates under both provincial growth forecasts and land use laws, and is looking to 2051 in its own planning process, Holy says. “At some point, if we’re going to accommodate our growth allotment that the province is giving us, we’ll probably have to move to farmland somewhere.” With growing local communities inevitably crowding out farmland, the goal is to make sure the land is being used as efficiently as possible becomes. Stricter rules also mean the days of individual farm owners smashing away prime land for building lots are over.
The joker card is of course the minister’s building regulations. In a 5-4 vote in October 2021, the Council supported Flato’s application for an MZO on farmland he had purchased 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 lots that the city hadn’t earmarked for development will now need water, sewer, and new roads, among other things.
The city is still negotiating with Flato and Bromont, the Ravines of Lindsay developer, who also bought land southeast of the city, to finalize master agreements covering the terms the developers agreed to. In the area of the MZO, the builders have to cover the enormous infrastructure costs. “The premise of development fees is that growth pays for growth,” says Holy. The city then takes over the usual development costs such as garbage and recyclables collection, road maintenance, maintenance.
Despite the progressive Conservative government’s frequent use of MZOs — it spent more than all provincial governments combined from 1995 to 2018 — there are practical limits to the amount of prime agricultural land the province can lose. “You can’t just send everyone to the Shield where you can’t grow anything,” says Harris.
Brekveld points to Waterloo as a model. The city has created what it calls a Countryside Line, beyond which farmland may not be touched for any other purpose. This fixed boundary has led to innovations such as creating housing 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 that the planning process has also shown that its population will soon need more rental housing for seniors and young adults than large single-family homes.
The local reality, says Holy, is that the huge cost of maintaining farmland for potential development makes it unlikely that we’ll see rampant subdivisions between voyages of the kind it seems to anyone who travels in the GTA. Given our distance from major population centers, “there’s only so much growth that we’re going to attract.”
When we think about the desire for development, we also need to remember the connection between farmland and the food on our plates, says Brekveld. “Farmers are both businessmen and stewards of the land. They’re efficient on land, they’re efficient on water, they’re efficient on the resources they put into the crops. But there is a limit.”
Locally, the trend is towards fewer, larger companies. And while cattle numbers are declining, cash cropping — growing crops for sale rather than just feeding your own livestock — continues to increase, says Kelly Maloney, the city’s agriculture economic development officer. Farming remains our most important part of the economy, and no matter how efficient a farmer is, cash crops will always require land. In fact, the city’s Agriculture and Food Action Plan lists protecting 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 going down, but again we are seeing a trend of younger farmers coming back and staying on the farm where it was very different 15-20 years ago. Agriculture and food have a bright future.”
These farmers also have protections under Ontario Law on Protection of Agriculture and Food Production. It recognizes that the business of farming involves sounds, smells, sights and slow-moving machinery that people moving to the area from the city may not expect or understand.
Ultimately, the way of life we value as residents of Kawartha Lakes is what people are looking for when they decide to move here and what developers are marketing. Farming is central to this life, so it wouldn’t make sense to pave all of our farmland, says Holy, any more than it would make sense to allow the city to change to the point where it’s no longer that is what attracts new residents in the first place.
“I think people come here because of our community values and our lifestyle. They bring an added wealth, and I think that’s also something that’s really good for our community.”