Nova Scotia’s agricultural heartland wrestles with land-use laws

 A view of the Annapolis Valley and North Mountain from the Ridge Road on the outskirts of Wolfville, Kings County, N.S. (Emily Leeson photo)

A view of the Annapolis Valley and North Mountain from the Ridge Road on the outskirts of Wolfville, Kings County, N.S. (Emily Leeson photo)

by Emily Leeson
It is a crisp fall morning in the hamlet of Greenwich, N.S., and the weekend traffic has already begun. Cars are stopping at the several farm markets along the old highway. 
Stirling Fruit Farms, just beyond the boundary between Greenwich and Wolfville, recently celebrated its centennial anniversary. Looking toward the Stirling pumpkin patch and corn maze, visitors can see across the Valley floor and up the edge of North Mountain – dotted with farm fields along the way.
The lure of the farmland draws out many tourists, especially during the harvest season.
“We make sure to get to different farms in the Valley to U-pick” said Kate Dalton, out in the area for a day with her two young children. “Hay rides by friendly farmers are a real highlight, and my kids love helping to bake apple or peach crisps knowing that they actually picked the fruit we are using.”
Kings County, which encompasses much of the Annapolis Valley and contains more than 600 farms, is the province’s agricultural heartland.
During the next few months, Kings County will finalize a new municipal planning strategy and land-use bylaw (MPS/LUB) aimed at guiding long-term sustainable development. A new draft of the document has been released and public consultation events have taken place. Before the end of the year, the draft will likely make its way before the county council to be finalized. However, many are saying that the new draft isn’t planning for the future, at least not the future of farming and agri-tourism in the county.
Marilyn Cameron is a member of the advocacy group No Farms, No Food (NF2), and she’s already experiencing the effects of development encroaching on agricultural land. She points to a group of recently subdivided lots up on North Mountain in what used to be a large hayfield.
“It is really hard for us to get hay here on the Valley floor for our animals – it is a challenge every year to find enough,” she said. “We’ve got people from other counties coming down to Kings County to get hay because all their hayfields have been developed. There’s houses sitting on their hayfields.”
In a nutshell, the problem is non-farm dwellings being constructed on agricultural land and the perception that the new MPS/LUB isn’t going to do enough to stop the practice and protect agricultural land.
“We want non-farm housing to stop,” said Cameron, summing up NF2’s stance on the issue. “It just has to stop. It doesn’t happen in other places and it doesn’t need to happen in Kings County anymore. We were hoping that they were going to close loopholes that exist right now in the current MPS which allows non-farm dwellings to go onto agricultural land.”
So far, that hasn’t been the case and NF2 members aren’t alone in their assessment of the draft MPS/LUB. Dr. David Connell, an assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, has been keeping an eye on how the new Kings County MPS/LUB is developing. He studies local food systems, agricultural planning, and farmland protection. In September, he put together an assessment of the legislative framework for farmland protection in Kings County. He compared the current MPS with the one being proposed, and concluded that the new draft offers a weaker policy for farmland protection.
“Based on the analysis using four principles as criteria, I found that the county’s commitment to protecting farmland is still present and important, but the language is weaker when compared to the language used in the current MPS,” wrote Connell. “At the same time, it appears that the county’s interest in accommodating both urban expansion and non-farm rural development has increased, thus tipping the balance further away from protecting farmland.”
NF2 would like to see several changes made to the draft before it is finalized. The problems that the group is hoping to address in the new MPS/LUB aren’t all new.
“We’ve been watching this issue for years and years and years,” said Cameron. “I just hope that they listen and that the council does the right thing because we’re planning for the future.”
While work on the new MPS/LUB has been ongoing for the last few years, the current council was elected in October 2016 and Mayor Peter Muttart was elected in the county’s first public race for mayor. Expectations are high for this new council to support agricultural land protection. 
Muttart himself doesn’t dispute Connell’s assessment of the draft MPS or NF2’s desire to firm up farmland protection rules.
“My personal position on farmland is that we’ve had over the years too many loopholes and those loopholes need to be changed – closed in fact,” said Muttart. “There’s been a constant nibbling away at the edges of our agricultural farmland base, so by and large my personal position is that we must tighten it up.”
If the planners take NF2’s proposed changes into consideration, the final document may well end up to be quite different from what has been proposed so far. They want a stronger articulation within the document of why agricultural land must be protected and a better definition of “agricultural uses” that specifically excludes any uses that would prevent potential agricultural use, including industrial solar farms and wind turbine parks. They’d also like to see all agricultural land treated equally.
Cameron sees this as an opportunity to move away from a system that has resulted in some land protected but other equally important agricultural land offered no protection whatsoever.
“Farmland up on the North and South Mountain should have the same value as farmland on the Valley floor,” said Cameron. “They were defining agricultural land worthy of protection as only active agricultural land of predominantly Class 2 and 3. Really, Class 4 and even Class 5 soils are perfectly fine for growing food on.”
NF2 wants the new MPS/LUB to define agricultural land as all active agricultural land, including Class 2, 3, and 4 soils and land with agricultural potential.
In terms of non-farm dwellings being built on agricultural land, NF2 would like to see the old loopholes that allowed that practice closed and no new ones opened. The draft allows for new non-farm dwellings to be constructed on lots already subdivided, between two other dwellings already in existence, and on newly created lots with a minimum frontage of 1,000 feet and a lot area no greater than five acres. NF2 would like to see those sections of the draft deleted.
“That’s going to ruin all the tourism appeal,” said Cameron. “It will create this strip development in prime agriculture areas. Once you get a certain amount of housing in an agricultural area, all of a sudden it flips over into looking like a residential zone. Agriculture gets pushed out.”
The group also takes issue with three new “growth centres” named in the draft: South Berwick, Greenwich, and Avonport. They are concerned that the change in designation for these hamlets reflects the county’s unjustified willingness to accommodate urban expansion. For NF2, Greenwich is unique because it’s a hotbed for agri-tourism in the Valley.
“Everyone who goes through Greenwich stops at the farm markets, picks their apples, picks their pumpkins, and then if they have time they visit more areas in Kings County and possibly leave some money here,” said Cameron. “Why would you want to call Greenwich a growth centre? It is a hamlet where agriculture is permitted and it’s not discouraged.”
Whether or not that idea or the many loopholes for development on agricultural land that NF2 has pinpointed will make their way into the final document remains to be seen. The document will now go back to the planners who will consider the opinions expressed during the public sessions. 
Muttart sounded optimistic. “I am hopeful that in the final iteration, after having received all the public input, that we’ll come out with a document that Dr. Connell and others in our community will consider to be an acceptable and appropriate protection of farmland,” he said.
Cameron hopes that, despite what she feels was a poor turnout for the public consultation events, enough voices were heard echoing NF2’s sentiments. “We’re not planning to make everybody today happy – we won’t be able to make everybody happy,” she said. “But our duty is make sure that there’s a resource for future agriculture to survive here.”