October 07, 2009

Farmland Trust donation blocks new development

As published in The Erin Advocate

When Deidre Wright gave up the right to sell her land to a developer, she did not view it as a sacrifice, but rather an opportunity to help stop the spread of subdivisions and quarries into Ontario's dwindling supply of good farmland.

"The land is being gobbled up by housing and gravel pits," said Wright, who has owned Belain Farm, on Shaws Creek Road near Belfountain, since 1965. "The land is precious. We should keep it rural."

She recently completed a deal with the Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT), a not-for-profit organization that promotes farmland preservation. She donated to them a "conservation easement" on her 97-acre property – a legal stipulation that prohibits a change in the land use. This is binding on her and all future owners of the property.

Various land trust groups have built up a network of nature reserves that now protect more than 60,000 acres across Ontario, primarily for natural areas such as forest and wetlands. Wright's property is mainly farmland, making it the first land securement for the OFT.

"Ontario is indebted to individuals like Deirdre Wright, whose concern for what the landscape will look like in the future has translated into action," said OFT Executive Director Bruce Mackenzie, who is working on three similar easements in or adjacent to the Greenbelt.

"Mrs. Wright's foresight and generosity will ensure that farmland and greenspace are protected in perpetuity – good news for agriculture and the environment."

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a partner in this project and will monitor the property. With a donated easement, the owner keeps the land and is free to sell it or bequeath it, though subsequent owners cannot change the land use.

The land gets two market value appraisals, one with the easement, and one without it. The difference between these amounts is the dollar value of the easement, which can be quite high if the land has development potential. When the easement is donated to the land trust, the land owner gets an income tax receipt for the value of the easement.

For the Belain Farm donation, the costs for legal work, surveying and appraising were covered using a portion of a $75,000 grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable group supported by the Ontario government.

Anyone with farmland can potentially get involved, even if there are no special natural features on their land. It is important to discuss the matter with children or others who may inherit the land. In some cases there may be capital gains tax to deal with, so landowners must find out all the details before they proceed.

Land trusts can also accept outright donations of land, as well as buy land and lease it to farmers. Land deals involving direct acquisition by trusts often occur when a landowner retires from farming: part of the farm may be sold for development, leaving the owner able to donate the remainder, or sell it at a lower price.

Municipal official plans already control development, and most of Erin is within Ontario's Greenbelt zone, as is Wright's property in Caledon. The conservation easement goes above and beyond both of those.

"It is an added level of protection," said Mackenzie, noting that the easement would remain in force even if future municipal or provincial governments were eager to encourage development of an area. "It is empowering for the landowner."

Imagine that – something substantial a landowner can do, which will have an impact long after they have died, standing up to commercial pressures and the whims of politicians. If many local farmers donated easements, it could make a huge difference.
"I'm trying to persuade my neighbours to do it," said Wright.

Ontario contains just over half of Canada's optimal class one farmland, but significant portions of it have been lost to urban sprawl. The Greenbelt is an attempt to control that sprawl, in a 1.8 million-acre band that wraps around Toronto, from the Niagara River to Cobourg. It includes the Niagara Escarpment, hundreds of towns and some 7,100 farms.

For more information, go to: www.ontariofarmlandtrust.ca and www.greenbelt.ca