Council sends hedgerow matter back to staff to limit exposure of local farmers

(Gazette file photo)


Draft amendments to the County’s Official Plan that would govern hedgerows, also known as fence bottoms or tree lines, have  been referred back to staff over concerns how wording appears to target farmers and current, modern agriculture practices.

Draft policy amendments to the County’s Official Plan were on the table at the July 11 Committee of the whole meeting that included a preamble that said ‘The rural/agricultural landscape, including scenic vistas, centuries-old farmlands demarcated by hedgerows/tree lines and abundant cultural heritage assets are a fundamental component of the County’s identity and character and that Conservation farming and stewardship practices to reduce agriculture/ environmental impacts, soil erosion and costs, including but not limited to hedgerow/tree line protection and revitalization’ should be encouraged.

The tree lines or fence bottoms in Prince Edward County are generally left-over remnants of when 100 acre family farms created a patchwork of small fields across the island community and are a far cry to today’s modern agricultural methods.

In terms of cultural heritage, the amendments also include verbiage that “The County’s rich supply of cultural heritage resources from its Aboriginal heritage, extensive archaeological resources to its Loyalist history and historic farm landscapes demarcated by centuries-old hedgerows/tree lines, all contribute to the County’s unique character and distinct rural charm.”

Finally, The amendment also called for the development and institution of implementation tools under the natural heritage protection provided in this Plan and in the Planning Act to ensure natural heritage policies are implemented including but not limited to: Zoning By-law restricting uses and built-form to current or compatible uses; Conditions for Site Plan Control; Conditions for Draft Plan approval; Development Agreements; Requirements identified in an Environmental Impact Study; Site Alteration Bylaw; Tree and Forest Conservation Bylaw; and,Public education awareness programs.

For local farmers looking to maximize acreage and change field sizes to adapt to modern practices and larger scale machinery utilized today, these additions and changes to the County’s Official Plan could be massive road blocks down the road and, even though the wording in the Official Plan currently exempts farming and agriculture and Ontario legislations prohibits municipal bylaws that govern or prohibit regular farming practices, it’s clear local farmers are concerned where this discussion might be heading.

On Thursday local land owners voiced opposition. 

Wellington area dairy farmer Scott Simpson’s concern on Thursday was the motion is simply opening a door to a potential  policy and bylaw that could restrict how farmers manage their land.

“To me, this is a creep. Within five years there could be new staff and a totally new council and all of this is the official plan and the policy would develop a life of its own,” Simpson said.  “I just bought a 247 acre farm, the largest field is 16 acres field and 16 acres isn’t going to cut to cut it with the machinery we have. We are milking 100 cows and I need to be able to put  the same amount of hours in as I have in the past.”

Elizabeth Bloome of Natural Heritage PEC spoke in support of the draft amendments. It was that organization that made a deputation to Council in May, 2018, asking for the municipality to consider developing a function that would conserve tree lines and hedgerows, something that was described at the time as a “disappearing cultural asset.”

Bloome praised planning staff for the thoughtful and well written motion, detailed how important fence bottoms and tree lines play in a healthy ecosystem and, considering the slow degeneration of the planet, how their maintenance could be part of a solution that slows climate change.

Bloome spoke of climate refugees in other parts of the world moving about where they can settle and the alternating flood and drought cycles that were an indicator climate change was nearly at the doorstep as well as how over cutting vegetation is a predictor and contributor of climate change.

However she added it was not her organization’s intent to paint local farmers in a bad light. 

“We do not suggest every tree and hedge in the Prince Edward County  must be kept nor are we trying to vilify farmers. We realize farmers are stewards of land, they love their life on the land and acknowledge there are many who are farming in a way that is protective of the land. We are not asking farmers and land owners to completely alter their practices but we would ask everyone makes some accommodations,” she said.

Janice Maynard (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“If we cannot get together on this the most important  issue of our age, I have little hope we will be passing on anything of value to the next generation,” Bloome added “We want to find a mechanism for everyone to be heard and will be protecting the land for successive generations and this motion is a step in the right direction.”

However, Kurt Vanclief wondered how individuals with no financial vested interest in the land could shape policy on how that asset was managed. 

In written comments to council, the Ameliasburgh sod farmer laid his position clear that farmers should be the individuals determining the path forward. 

“These hedgerows are on land farmers treasure; Farmers have paid the mortgage, paid the property taxes and rely on this land to support families. I struggle to see the need for others in our community to determine how best they do that. Others that have no financial interest in this land,” Vanclief said. “I can think of a similar example the offers a perspective on this issue. I really like to eat in small “Mom and Pop” restaurants. If I came to council asking you to limit the size of all restaurants to seating capacity of 20 because l really like the way it used to be, wouldn’t that cause concern?”

During discussion around the horseshoe, Councillor Janice Maynard said hedgerows and tree lines are not heritage features but basically former property lines from legacy farms of the distant past, often established by how far a farmer and team of horses could drag a rock. 

Maynard said she was worried about the municipality embarking on a slippery slope that would be both setting unreasonable expectations and negatively impacting farming in Prince Edward County.

“Comments from the audience today supporting the motion seem to be raising the public’s expectations that we are somehow going to get farmers buffeting around the edges of roads and that tree lines in fields are somehow part and parcel of this draft amendment,” Maynard said. 

Wellington councillor Mike Harper spoke to the Simpson deputation and asked County Manager of Planning Paul Walsh about the dairy farmer’s need to take large scale machinery to-and-from adjoining fields and trimming some vegetation in order to meet those needs.

Brad Nieman. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Harper said it was his interpretation of and the intent of the policy that farmers are exempt from the portion of the County’s Official Plan being potentially amended and Simpson could still proceed even if these changes were added.

Walsh agreed.

“It would take further steps of council towards other bylaws- site alteration bylaws, tree removal bylaws-As it stands now, this policy alone could not do that,” Walsh said.

And aside from the current wording in the Official Plan that exempts farmers from anything included in the draft wording on the table Thursday, South Marysburgh Councillor John Hirsch clarified that, firstly,  the motion was to add parts to the various sections of the draft Official Plan and the passing anything Thursday or when the minutes appeared at a subsequent council meeting would not cast these amendments in stone. 

Hirsch confirmed that the draft plan would be coming before council for approval at a later date this summer.

Secondly, Hirsch said it was his understanding that provincial legislation, namely the Provincial Farming and Food Production Act of 1998, forbade municipal councils from enacting bylaws of any kind that would restrict normal farm practice and removal of hedgerows are considered a a normal practice on Ontario’s farms.

“I don’t think we will ever have an ability to require a farmer on farm land to maintain a hedgerow. There might be a desire and part of the text is to encourage the practice that respect the value of hedgerows and tree lines but we could never legislate an inability for farmers to remove hedgerows even if we wanted to,” Hirsch said.

Acting CAO Robert McAuley weighed in with some clarification during the discussion and reminded councillors what was before them was not a farm oriented policy and if the municipality required some basis go to a debate at a land use tribunal, these amendments would be needed to form the County’s argument.

The acting CAO said he could envision circumstances where a  tourist-commercial use could come forward with a fence bottom or tree line as part of a zoning or altered usage application that was non-agricultural in nature.

If the municipality is desirous of keeping some tree lines on a property and the applicant says no, the wishes of the County could not be defended if and when legal action should arise. 

“The details could be fulfilled later and the municipality could enact a tree bylaw if that was council’s wish but farmers would be excluded-the legislation is clear- the municipality cannot do something that encumbers their farming practice. But on non-farm parcels, tree lines can be preserved and that’s a scenario that could happen,” McAuley said. “There are a myriad of ways this could go and those are decisions council will address later but at the very beginning, we need to have these tools in the Official Plan so we can engage applicants as to why tree lines and hedgerows are important, why they need to be maintained and, ultimately, so we have a defence if the applicant says no and appeals our decision.”

Despite the fact it would take a major shift in provincial legislation and subsequent bylaws to make farmers apply to the municipality to change the layout of fields, conjoin two plots of land into one large one, etc. Some members of council still felt the current terms were unfairly directed at producers. 

 “There’s a lot of language that targets farmers and farming and I feel there’s a way to achieve maintaining as many tree lines as possible without including all references to farming,” Maynard said. “If that’s the intent, the referencing to all the farmland is not needed.”

Councillor Brad Neiman agreed the motion was read as directed at farmers and asked to refer the motion back to staff to examine the wording as to not target farmers and agriculture community.

The motion passed.