Intervenor: Vol 23. No 2 April - June 1998

Community Work: The Restrictive Covenants of the Tender Fruitland Program Will Save Niagara Fruitlands

Editor's Note: The Chronological Guide to Environmental Deregulation in Ontario (Intervenor, v.22 no.5&6 and updated in Intervenor, v.24, no.1) refers in error to a cut in funding for an agricultural land trust to protect the Niagara Fruit Belt from urban development. Instead, it should have said that funding was cut for the Tender Fruitland Program. This guest article provides more information. PALS and CELA have worked together for over 10 years on various projects, including the Land Use Caucus of the Ontario Environment Network, and in the preparation of detailed submissions on land use reform.

Long used in the USA and elsewhere, to retain prime agricultural lands for farming for the long term, restrictive covenants could be used in Niagara to preserve the tender fruitlands of Niagara in "perpetuity".

In fact, in 1995, the Ontario government came within a hairs breadth of implementing a Tender Fruitlands Program for Niagara which used payments to farmers in exchange for restrictive covenants placed on the land. It would have helped economically strapped farmers preserve the land in "perpetuity". So close did Ontario come to embracing this visionary method of land preservation, that the implementing legislation is still in place and six farmers have a case in court, claiming program payments which were to be in the mail on the same day the newly elected Conservative government cancelled the Program.

How did we come so near to what could be the best way of protecting the best land in North America for tender fruit growing for the long term? Well, through a lot of hard slugging from the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS).

Prior to OMB hearings on Niagara's urban boundaries in 1979-81, PALS had observed the failure of zoning to protect the fruitlands from urban sprawl. By 1989 the "permanent" protection the OMB had afforded fruitlands abutting urban centres was placed at risk by a number of factors: extreme adverse weather conditions, high land costs, and the removal of tariffs under free trade. Grape farmers were helped by the $100 million free trade "grape pullout" and an industry rejuvenation initiative. Many tender fruit farmers, however, were pushed to the edge of bankruptcy.

Their answer to the dilemma, was to push stridently for loosened land restrictions and they were supported by a clause in the Regional Official Plan that allowed for changes in its plan should the economics of farming change. Over its 12 years of battling to preserve land (including observing the failure of zoning and the OMB to "permanently" protect fruitlands from urban sprawl), PALS had researched and advocated many solutions - legislation, land trusts and agricultural reserves. After a think tank held for our members, a farmer sent PALS an article on the use of development rights in the USA. Farmers were being compensated for keeping their land in farming.

PALS researched the pros and cons of the use of development rights (easements in Canada) and then worked extremely hard over the next seven years to convince farmers, politicians at all levels, and the public, of the value of this method of saving Niagara's tender fruitland and supporting an industry in crisis. The result was a regional/provincial program that would pay farmers the difference between the artificially high land prices (in Essex, fruitland prices were $10,000 lower than Niagara) and what the real farmland value was, in return for a covenant forbidding development on the land in "perpetuity". The investment initially was $20 million and payments would range between $4,000 and $12,000 per acre, over a ten year period.

Over 60% of the 300 tender fruit farmers applied and there was a government promise of future monies if the program uptake was good. PALS estimated that the first $20 million would cover over 40% of the initial applicants and that a further $20-40 million would pay for covenants on all of tender fruitlands offered by farmers.

PALS also knew that many of the initial farm parcels would be on, or close to, urban boundaries and belonged to full-time farmers, who would use their funds to pay down debt and reinvest in the farm industry. This was a clear indication that the program would do what PALS had intended - save the land in "perpetuity" in the public interest, seal urban boundaries, help the industry (which is a big job provider and brings well over $25 million per year into the regional economy), and overcome the setbacks of free trade and weather-related disasters.

These days, tender fruit prices are better; farmland is bought by farmers for the first time in a long while and new farm related services, such as restaurants, are thriving. However, a downturn in the economy and another hailstorm would put us back where we were in l989. So PALS continues to advocate the use of the Tender Fruitlands Program for Niagara and was heartened recently by a survey of farmers, 80% of whom would apply for the program should it be offered. They too, realize that circumstances on the farm can change quickly and they are willing to give up chances to develop the land, in order to stay in farming for the long term.

Gracia Janes is a founding member (in 1976) of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society and has served on the PALS executive ever since. She sat on the Provincial Tender Fruitlands Committee from 1992-95. She has also worked extensively on social justice issues in the Niagara Region and with the Provincial and National Councils of Women.