Tomorrow, Ottawa City Council will meet to vote on recommendations made at a joint meeting of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and the Planning committee, in late January. The recommendations include the selection of lands slated for development in a new, expanded urban boundary. These decisions are significant, difficult to overturn, and therefore will have a lasting impact on our city.
Urban Development on Prime Agricultural Land
In that joint meeting in January, a motion passed which would remove 106 hectares of low quality land that was selected by City planners to be added within the new urban boundary — on either side of Bowesville Road south of Rideau Road— and replace it with an equivalent amount of prime farmland that is currently within both the ‘untouchable’ Agricultural Resource Area and the newly proposed Gold Belt.
The proponent of this land swap said “…it would be a 15-minute community except for that one glaring hole that now exists. On the south side of the rail line we’ve had to exclude a tract of land that is designated agricultural. And I voted to protect agricultural lands, like you all did. It’s important that I stand by that principle. However, at this point, it doesn’t really make sense in Riverside South.”
It is precisely at points like these that all Councillors must stand by the principle—if it is to have any meaning. Every time that Council is asked to sacrifice prime agricultural land, the circumstances are described as exceptional. To the extent that, in Ottawa, it is no longer exceptional to hear the sacrifice of prime farmland to urban expansion described as exceptional.
Now is the time for Councillors to do something truly exceptional: to stand up for the principle they supported unanimously nine months ago—to defend agricultural land from urban expansion—when it actually matters, when they have a real, tangible, significant expanse of prime farmland, some of the best farmland in the city, within their power to preserve.
Make no mistake, this land swap opens the door to future expansion and development on prime agricultural land. The proposed ‘Gold Belt’ offers only nominal protection, and that protection is already mocked by this land swap before the belt is even implemented.
This is not Transit-Oriented Development
And Council should not be swayed by arguments that this land swap represents ‘Transit Oriented Development’, their opportunity to complete a 15-minute community around the Bowesville transit station. It is not.
The joint committee was swayed by the claim that the millions of dollars already invested in Bowesville station would be wasted unless this prime farmland is developed into residential properties within walking distance of the station. This is not true – the fact is that this prime farmland is not within walking distance of the station, because the land within walking distance of Bowesville Station is already contained within the new urban boundary! All of the land immediately south of the new station, on either side of Bowesville Road, is Category 1 land already designated for urban expansion.
The station, which is under construction, will be located 300 metres east of Bowesville Road. The nearest corner of the block of prime farmland that would be sacrificed by this motion is over 1 km from Bowesville station. Any residential properties built on this block of prime farmland will be between 1 km and 2.5 km from the station. The block of pass 2 land already recommended by staff for inclusion, which was swapped out in this motion, is all closer than 2.5 km from the station.
There is no ‘win’ here for walkability, for 15-minute communities, or for ‘Transit-Oriented Development’: there is only the loss of a large block of the best agricultural land inside the City of Ottawa.
Now that it actually matters, councillors must stand by the principle that they all supported less than a year ago, reject this flawed recommendation, and reverse the permanent loss of prime farmland that it represents.
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Ironic Developments: Sacrificing Agricultural Land for a Food Distribution Hub?
In an opinion piece, Civic Action Ottawa has advocated for sacrificing farmland along the 416 and 417 to create space for distribution facilities—using a passage in the addendum to our 2012 community-developed Ottawa Food Action Plan to conclude “We do not have a farmland issue in our region; we have a problem with the access and distribution of our local harvests.”
Just Food firmly believes in the need for more investment in infrastructure to support non-profit and for-profit wholesale distribution of foods from coast-to-coast-to-coast as well as regional food. In addition to providing increased community food security, this infrastructure would help both businesses and public buyers (e.g. hospitals, universities) to access more food from farms in this region, supporting stable livelihoods and resilience in the regional rural economy.
However, we also clearly know that City planners have identified more than enough industrial land—in the existing City plan and in the current proposal—to build multiple large-scale distribution terminals over the coming decades.
With the continued rate of loss of viable farmland, farmland preservation remains a cornerstone of community food security. We most certainly do not need to permanently remove from production yet more agricultural land in this area. Future generations would not thank us.