Of all the land around Ottawa’s suburbs that Ontario’s housing minister unilaterally designated for development earlier this month, a 37-hectare farm arguably came as the biggest surprise.
Østendegården is a small part of the 654-hectare urban extension Steve Clark introduced November 4 when he overruled a much-discussed city decision from 2020 — one of many recent controversial steps taken by the Progressive Conservative government to increase housing supply.
Unlike other countries in the province tapped for future suburbsand beyond the 1,281 hectares the council had itself approved, the Watters Road farm was not even earmarked for development during long debates in 2021 because Ontario’s own planning policies require good agricultural land to be protected.
The rural scene on the cul-de-sac dirt road is peaceful, with snow-covered cornstalks standing rigid in a field near an old barn. The pine trees near Cardinal Creek hide the rows of suburban houses just half a mile up the hill in Orléans.
The property’s predictable lack of development potential seemed clear enough when the city council took it an official position not to allow houses on agricultural land and marked the urban expansion line in February 2021and omits the packet in question.
Yet records show that in August 2021, the newly incorporated 1177 Watters Developments Ltd. purchased it for $12.7 million — the equivalent of $139,382 an acre — from the family that had long owned it.
According to company records, all five directors are in the Verdi Alliance group of concrete companies. The five men donated a combined $12,315 to the Progressive Conservatives in 2021 and 2022.
CBC News tried to reach the executives but did not receive a response.
Questions to Clark’s office about the farm, any perception of a conflict of interest and lobbying by developers associated with other parcels he added to city limits also went unanswered.
129 hectares of agricultural land disappear daily
Meanwhile in the Greater Toronto Area, the province is facing criticism for proposing to open its Greenbelt to housing, including repealing a law that protects about 2,000 hectares of farmland near Pickering, Ont.
The government is “taking a step back” and choosing new housing over future food security when it should be able to have both, according to Emily Sousa, an agricultural policy analyst at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).
Current policy governing land use mandates cities and towns to build efficiently close to transit and infrastructure and avoid urbanization of agricultural land. But the province doesn’t seem to be following its own rules or listen to OFA or municipalitiesSousa said.
Not only is it disappearing at an increasing rate, but farming itself is becoming more difficult as urban sprawl edges outward and farm equipment mixes with highway traffic, she said.
“It’s troubling on so many different levels,” Sousa said.
“What’s scary about the rate of loss of farmland and these seemingly small decisions to make [in] a little bit of soil here and a little bit of soil there is the cumulative effect that has over time.”
Ottawa morning10:17 a.mThese lands are being broken up amid ‘frightening’ urban sprawl
$40 million in land purchases at Findlay Creek
Land speculation is nothing new.
Buyers have always bought up rural areas on the city’s periphery years or decades in advance, expecting that one day neighborhoods will stretch out and once rural will increase in value.
It is also not unexpected that landowners will argue to get their properties within the city limits. At public committee meetings in 2020 and 2021, owners made their pitches to Ottawa city councillors and – as a provincial register shows – hired lobbying firms to speak to the minister himself.
To find some of the biggest winners of Clark’s decision, follow Bank Street south until it hits the countryside and the thriving suburban neighborhood of Findlay Creek.
Well-known local developers such as Claridge Homes, Urbandale, Richcraft and Multivesco, along with local golf club owner Patterson Group, asked a joint committee in January 2021 to let them “finish” the Findlay Creek area all the way west to Hawthorne Road.
Property records show that while Claridge bought some parcels as far back as 2006, these four developers bought more than half the land in 2019 alone. Together, they paid more than $40 million.
But that country failed in the beginning to do so within the limit.
City staff scored those parcels poorly, saying transit and water infrastructure would be expensive. Plus, the southernmost Claridge lot was too close to an active quarry.
Despite that, Ontario’s housing minister this month allowed an additional 257 hectares within city limits.
Some of the same developers also spent tens of millions to buy 175 hectares north of Kanata in the South March area, which was also closed within the boundary.
Firms Claridge, Multivesco, eQ Homes, Uniform Developments and Minto released a statement as the town committee swapped their land in favor of Tewin in 2021, despite their lands scoring well with staff. Now everyone is back in.
They declined to comment for this story.
Suburban growth is exploding
The divide between city and country can be sharp.
Where Bank Street meets the landscape of Findlay Creek, for example, townhouses still clad in white house wrap sit amid construction as a barn decays behind them.
The area has exploded, said Mariam Zeitoun, who has lived there for a dozen years – and she is not wrong.
The City of Ottawa’s annual report on development shows the population of the Findlay Creek area grew by 6,754 over five years to 16,038 people in 2021.
Residents say the community is family-friendly, but they also note the elementary school yard is filled with portable classrooms and traffic on both Bank Street and Albion Road is getting worse. The area does not have its own community centre, library or leisure centre.
The newly added Findlay Creek sites are almost five kilometers from the future Leitrim LRT station. Zeitoun says the area needs more transit — she has to drive her oldest children to jobs and college.
“How many more people are we going to add? It’s insane. It makes no sense how it’s going to … help the community that’s already here,” Zeitoun said.
“It seems to be more about profit than anything else.”