Summary of the Agricultural System and Natural Heritage System Policies in Ontario's Provincial Plans*

This page explains:

  • The relationship between the Natural Heritage System and the Agricultural System in A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2020 (A Place to Grow), the Greenbelt Plan, 2017, and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017; and,
  • The relationships between agricultural uses, key natural heritage features and key hydrologic features.

Context

The Greenbelt Plan, 2017 and A Place to Grow, 2020 policies recognize the importance of both the Natural Heritage System and the Agricultural System to the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the people of Ontario. The two overlapping systems are mutually supportive. The protection of these resources is vitally important to the long-term vision for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

The target audience for this webpage is landowners who have properties in both the Agricultural System and the Natural Heritage System in either A Place to Grow, 2020 or the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 to provide them with a better understanding of the Agricultural and the Natural Heritage System. It is not intended to replace information in A Place to Grow, 2020 and Greenbelt Plan, 2017. For more detailed policy direction on the information provided here, A Place to Grow, 2020 and the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 should be read in their entirety along with the Provincial Policy Statement, 2020 (PPS), and applied in each circumstance.

Except for references to legislation, italicized words are defined terms in the provincial policies and plans, and these documents should be consulted for specific definitions and criteria.

Landowners should consult with their local municipality for interpretation of land use policies in addition to provincial guidance. When considering changes to a property (e.g. an expansion or alteration of a building or structure, a new building or structure, lot creation or a change in land use), contact the local municipality for information on how to apply and receive approval. This webpage is not intended to provide advice on specific land use planning applications.

What is a Natural Heritage System?

Natural Heritage Systems are connected systems of natural features and areas and the lands and waters that link them together, including:

  • wetlands
  • fish habitat
  • significant woodlands
  • significant wildlife habitat and
  • habitat of endangered and threatened species.

Natural Heritage Systems enable ecological processes to continue across the landscape by reducing habitat fragmentation and allowing for the movement of plants and animals. Where natural features are limited in size or are widely dispersed, the Natural Heritage System includes lands without natural features but with the potential to be restored to enhance habitat and connectivity. These lands may also be identified as working landscapes that enable ecological functions to continue.

How do I determine if a property is in the Natural Heritage System?

Mapping and the GIS data layer for the Natural Heritage System for both A Place to Grow 2020 and Greenbelt Plan, 2017 is available from Ontario GeoHub. The Natural Heritage System mapping can also be viewed online using the Make a Map: Natural Heritage Areas application.

Within the Greenbelt area, the provincial mapping is in effect. Elsewhere in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Natural Heritage System in the Growth Plan applies when it is implemented in the applicable upper- or single-tier official plan. Until that time, natural heritage features identified in upper- and single-tier official plans apply. Once the System is included in municipal official plans, check with the municipality to confirm if the Natural Heritage System applies to a property.

What is an Agricultural System?

The Agricultural System identifies and protects a continuous, productive land base for agriculture across municipalities and provides support for the agri-food supply chain the sector depends on. The System, mapped and issued by the Province in accordance with the A Place to Grow, 2020, is comprised of a group of interconnected elements that create a viable, thriving agri-food sector.

The system has two parts:

  • Agricultural land base: includes prime agricultural areas, including specialty crop areas, and rural lands that together create a continuous productive land base for agriculture.
  • Agri-food network: includes regional infrastructure and transportation networks, on-farm buildings and infrastructure, agricultural services, farm markets, distributors and primary processing, and vibrant, agriculture-supportive communities that are important to the viability of the agri-food sector.

How do I determine if my property is in the Agricultural System?

Provincial mapping for the Agricultural System can be viewed or downloaded from the Agricultural System Portal or from Ontario GeoHub.

Within the Greenbelt area, the provincial mapping is in effect. Elsewhere in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the agricultural land base mapping applies when it is implemented in the applicable upper- or single-tier official plan. Until that time, prime agricultural areas identified in upper- and single-tier official plans apply.

If you want to see if a specific property is within a designated prime agricultural area, please check the provincial mapping for areas within the Greenbelt and applicable municipal official plan for areas elsewhere within the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Across the entire Greater Golden Horseshoe, upper- and single-tier municipalities may refine the provincial agricultural land base mapping, based on the Implementation Procedures for the Agricultural System in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Mapping refinements occur as part of a municipal official plan review process.

Can the Agricultural System and the Natural Heritage System overlap on my property?

Parts of the Natural Heritage System for the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Natural Heritage System do overlap with areas of the Agricultural System within the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The policies of both the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 and A Place to Grow, 2020 recognize the importance of both the Natural Heritage System and Agricultural System to the people of Ontario. Where the Systems overlap, a property is subject to the policies of both Systems. The Greenbelt Plan, 2017 and A Place to Grow, 2020 policies provide flexibility for agricultural uses within the Natural Heritage System, as outlined below. Mapping layers from Ontario GeoHub can be used to identify areas of overlap.

Do the policies of the provincial plans allow me to continue to farm in and adjacent to key natural heritage features and key hydrologic features?

Lands in agricultural uses can continue to be used for agricultural purposes and changes in agricultural activities are allowed without a land use planning application. For example, lands in row crop production could be converted to pasture or planted as an orchard. Improvements to farmland, such as stone removal, tile draining a field or fencing a pasture could also occur. Some agricultural activities that would not be considered development or site alteration can also occur within key natural heritage features. For example, maple tree taps and sap collection lines within a woodlot can continue to be used. While not subject to an application under the Planning Act, some of these agricultural activities may be subject to municipal by-laws (e.g. tree-cutting) or regulatory controls under the Conservation Authorities Act. The construction or expansion of agricultural buildings or structures if located in proximity to key natural heritage features or key hydrologic features might be subject to further conditions and is discussed in more detail below.

Can I establish an agricultural use or build a new agricultural building in the Natural Heritage System?

A full range of existing and new agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses, on-farm diversified uses, and normal farm practices are permitted in the Natural Heritage System for the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Natural Heritage System. Although new agricultural buildings are allowed within the Natural Heritage System, other policies such as those regarding key natural heritage features continue to apply (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.2.1; A Place to Grow 4.2.2.3, 4.2.3 and 4.2.4).

Further information and examples of agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses and on-farm diversified uses can be found in OMAFRA's Guidelines on Permitted Uses in Ontario's Prime Agricultural Areas.

Can I build new agricultural buildings or structures in or adjacent to a key natural heritage feature or a key hydrologic feature?

New buildings and structures for agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses or on-farm diversified uses are not permitted in key natural heritage features or key hydrologic features.

A new building or structure within 120 metres of key natural heritage features in the Natural Heritage System for the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Natural Heritage System and any key hydrologic features, is permitted without the need for a natural heritage or hydrologic evaluation subject to the following requirements:

  • A minimum 30 metre vegetation protection zone is provided from key features.
  • The land is and will continue to be used for agricultural purposes. If the land is not being used for agricultural purposes, a condition of natural self-sustaining vegetation is required for the vegetation protection zone.
  • Best management practices will be pursued by the agricultural operator to protect and restore key features and their functions (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5.7, A Place to Grow 4.2.4.4).

If a new building or structure is proposed closer than the minimum 30-metre vegetation protection zone, a natural heritage or hydrologic evaluation is required. The natural heritage or hydrologic evaluation may recommend that the 30-metre vegetation protection zone be maintained, or a lesser vegetation protection zone may be supported. However, this is only permitted for features that do not have a 30-metre minimum requirement. Features with a 30-metre minimum requirement are seepage areas and springs, fish habitat, permanent and intermittent streams, lakes (and their littoral zones), significant woodlands and wetlands (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5.4; A Place to Grow 4.2.4.1c).

Are agricultural activities permitted in the vegetation protection zone surrounding features?

If the land is and will continue to be used for agricultural purposes, all agricultural activities are allowed, and the vegetation protection zone does not need to consist of natural self-sustaining vegetation. The type of agricultural activity within the vegetation protection zone can be changed without a land use planning approval, providing it doesn't involve the construction of a new building or structure (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5.7, A Place to Grow 4.2.4.4).

Examples of agricultural activity include:

  • growing crops
  • raising and pasturing livestock
  • maintaining existing buildings and structures
  • maintaining buffers and
  • mowing grassed areas.

Can I expand an existing agricultural building or structure that is already located within key features?

Expansions or alterations to existing buildings and structures for agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses or on-farm diversified uses that are within key hydrologic features and key natural heritage features, and their associated vegetation protection zones, are permitted if it is demonstrated that the following criteria are met:

  • There is no alternative and expansion or alteration in the feature is minimized.
  • In the vegetation protection zone, the expansion or alteration is directed away from the feature to the maximum extent possible.
  • The impact of the expansion or alteration on the feature and its functions is minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent possible (Greenbelt Plan 4.5.5, Growth Plan 4.2.3.1f).

Are there special considerations for agricultural buildings in the Niagara Peninsula Specialty Crop Area?

In addition to the policies described above, in the Niagara Peninsula Tender Fruit and Grape Area, new buildings or structures for agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses and on-farm diversified uses are permitted within 30-metres of permanent and intermittent streams (key hydrologic features) subject to these conditions:

  • The permanent or intermittent stream also functions as an agricultural swale, roadside ditch or municipal drain as shown on provincially approved mapping.
  • A minimum 15-metre vegetation protection zone is established between the building or structure and the permanent or intermittent stream. However, this vegetation protection zone is not required to be maintained as natural self-sustaining vegetation if the land is and will continue to be used for agricultural purposes.
  • There is no alternative location for the building or structure without impacting lands that are in specialty crop production.
  • Best management practices will be used to protect or restore key hydrologic features and functions.
  • New individual on-site sewage systems will not be located within 30-metres of the stream (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5.8).

How do natural heritage policies effect applications for lot creation for agricultural purposes?

The provincial plans take different approaches to agricultural lot creation. The Greenbelt Plan, 2017 contains specific policies related to lot creation for agricultural purposes (Greenbelt Plan 4.6). A Place to Grow, 2020 does not, and instead the lot creation policies of the PPS, 2020 apply (PPS 2.3.4). While the specific details and criteria differ slightly between the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 and the PPS, 2020, both of these documents permit similar types of lot creation in prime agricultural areas, such as new lots for agricultural purposes, and lots for residences surplus to a farm operation as a result of farm consolidation.

Creating a new lot is considered development as defined by the provincial plans and the PPS, 2020. If the proposed lot is located within the Natural Heritage System, then those policies would apply (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.2.3, A Place to Grow, 4.2.2.3).

Policies related to key hydrologic features or key natural heritage features could also apply. If the proposed lot was within a key hydrologic feature it would not be permitted (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5, A Place to Grow, 4.2.3). If the proposed lot was within a key natural heritage feature in the Natural Heritage System it would not be permitted (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5, A Place to Grow, 4.2.3). If the proposed lot was within a natural heritage feature and area outside of the Natural Heritage System the policies of the PPS, 2020 would apply, meaning the lot would not be permitted in a significant wetland or a significant coastal wetland; for other significant features, the lot would not be permitted unless it was demonstrated that there would be no negative impacts on the feature or its ecological function (PPS 2.1.4 and 2.1.5) or in accordance with provincial and federal requirements (PPS 2.1.6 and 2.1.7).

If the proposed lot is adjacent to any key hydrologic features or key natural heritage features within the Natural Heritage System, those policies would apply, and would potentially constrain the location of the proposed lot (Greenbelt Plan 3.2.5, A Place to Grow, 4.2.4). If the lot creation application was located outside of the Natural Heritage System, but adjacent to a natural heritage feature and area, the policies of the PPS, 2020 (PPS 2.1.8) would apply.

Do similar policies apply in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017?

In the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 the Natural Heritage System is considered to be the Natural Core Area and Natural Linkage Area designations (ORMCP Introduction). Prime agricultural areas in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 are not mapped in a prime agricultural area designation. However, these prime agricultural areas can be identified in the mapping provided for the broader Agricultural System (ORMCP Introduction).

In the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 agricultural uses are permitted in the Natural Core Area, Natural Linkage Area and Countryside Area designations. Agriculture-related uses and on-farm diversified uses are permitted in the Countryside Area and within prime agricultural areas within the Natural Core Area and Natural Linkage Areas (ORMCP 11(3) & (4); 12(3) & (4); 13(3)). Policies for agricultural building construction with respect to key natural heritage features and key hydrologic features are similar to those described above for the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 and A Place to Grow, 2020 (ORMCP 22(2)6; 22(4); 22(5); 26(2)5; 26(4.1); and 26(4.2)).

The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 provides policy direction on how key hydrologic features and key natural heritage features are to be protected throughout the Plan area. Similar to the Greenbelt Plan, 2017 creation of a new agricultural lot (ORMCP 22, 26 and 32) is considered development and subject to policies related to key hydrologic features and key natural heritage features. Refer to the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 for specific policies.

Where can I find more information?

Local municipalities should be your first point of contact for additional information about the Natural Heritage Systems and the Agricultural System in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Further information is available online:

Provincial Policy Direction and Plans:

Agricultural System:

Natural Heritage System:

*This webpage addresses A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2020, the Greenbelt Plan, 2017, and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017. It does not address other provincial plans in the Greater Golden Horseshoe such as the Niagara Escarpment Plan, 2017 or the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, 2009.


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca