Councillors from Ottawa’s rural wards have rejected plans to require some property owners to call city staff before preparing land for farming, potentially leaving an opening for them to circumvent the rules and pre-emptively clear land for development.
Staff proposed the changes to the site alteration bylaw after dozens of hectares of trees at the future Tewin suburb were clear-cut in the middle of the night and without warning earlier this year.
While staff eventually found nothing wrong, the move sparked outrage and a public relations nightmare.
“We all remember the Tewin tree-cutting incident back in February, where councillors were receiving many phone calls from concerned members of the community,” planner Amy MacPherson said at Thursday’s meeting of the city’s agriculture and rural affairs committee.
“Staff had no information to provide initially, because we didn’t know that it was happening until the complaints came in.”
That’s one reason why staff wanted to compel more owners to flag the city whenever they plan to do things like remove topsoil, strip vegetation or grade their land.
The new provision, which would have been limited to the two kilometres around the urban boundary, was just one of several changes aimed at better protecting natural features of rural Ottawa and avoiding another communications fiasco.
Councillor-led change could erode protections
This is the first review of the five-year-old bylaw, which is meant to manage how land changes affect things like drainage. Staff have so far evaluated 2,500 complaints, 98 per cent of which were resolved when they found landowners followed “normal practices.”
Only one complaint led to charges.
In 2018, land at the corner of Shea and Flewellyn roads near Stittsville, just outside Ottawa’s urban boundary, was cleared. The owners claimed it was for agricultural production, but Stow said they were simultaneously advertising the land as a development opportunity.
The property owners and their primary contractor pleaded guilty to removing woodland without prior approval, and a provincial court imposed more than $87,000 in fines and victim surcharges.
Nick Stow, project manager with the natural systems and rural affairs unit, told CBC that track record shows the bylaw has been “very successful.”
Rideau-Jock Coun. David Brown disagrees.
His motion questioned both the effectiveness and intent of the bylaw. He successfully called on his colleagues to limit natural protections that would have been expanded to all of Ottawa to only include rural land within one kilometre of the urban boundary.
Stow said staff are still evaluating how the motion will affect their goals, but worry it could erode the city’s ability to properly safeguard woodlands and other natural features.
“The vast majority of the rural land would remain unprotected,” he said.
Investigation window limited
Stow and MacPherson argued that the protections would not adversely affect agricultural interests, saying many farmers already check in with city staff first.
They also noted that, apart from the notification requirement, all agricultural exemptions would remain the same. Daily property maintenance, such as changing a septic bed or managing a woodlot, would also remain unhindered.
While Stow believes farming concerns are “legitimate,” so are fears that landowners will clear land they believe will eventually be reclassified as urban.
The motion also complicates enforcement.
Staff have only six months to investigate a complaint before the window to lay charges closes. If a landowner claims they’re preparing land for harvest in October, investigators won’t be able to wait until growing season for evidence.
“We would be powerless at that point to to act even if they showed no intention of actually farming that land,” he said.
In the case of the Tewin tree-cutting, staff were forced to halt what was eventually proven to be legitimate work in order to investigate.
This provision would have avoided that unnecessary delay and allowed staff to address complaints, said MacPherson.
WATCH | Landowners confused and frustrated many with this clear-cutting, but followed the rules
Featured VideoHundreds of stacked logs can be seen on Feb. 27, 2023 on Tewin lands north of Piperville Road, just outside Ottawa’s urban boundary. (Photo: Raphael Tremblay/CBC)
One phone call too many, councillors argue
But councillors argued this change would punish farmers by adding a new level of bureaucracy to an already difficult sector.
“We want to make sure we protect lands from that type of developer speculation,” said Brown. “But at the same time, we have to realize that clearing land to put it into agricultural production is a normal farm practice and that’s protected both under federal and provincial legislation.”
West Carleton-March Coun. Clarke Kelly said he and Brown have heard from a number of concerned farmers.
“I love trees. I campaigned on keeping them standing. But I also understand how important farms are to ensuring the rural nature of our wards,” said Kelly.
“I don’t want to do anything that makes it harder or more difficult for [farmers] to do their jobs.”
Brown also bristled at the suggestion that notifying staff would be a simple task.
“I can understand from staff, the perspective where it’s just another phone call, but for these folks it’s another phone call on top of another phone call on top of another form to comply,” he said.
“If you’re a farmer, if you’re an agricultural operation, you don’t need to ask the city’s permission to go and farm.”
The revisions head to council on Wednesday. Any changes to the bylaw won’t come into effect until next February or March.