The cows at Upper Cold Creek Farm are not used to the sight of visitors.
Fifty of so of them are quietly grazing on one of the forested hills of the picturesque 100-acre farm off of Pine Valley Dr., in the heart of Vaughan, as farm owner Gillian Evans walks towards them.
They look up at her, startled. Some walk towards her, and then suddenly jump back. Others moo loudly.
“The little ones are curious,” says Evans. “The older ones…well, you know what they say, never get between a mother and her baby,” says Evans, offering a half-warning.
It’s this interaction, between the urban dweller and the farm animal that has become Evan’s biggest worry. The family-run beef farm — one of the few active farms left in the southern part of the city — is getting ready for the inevitable: a housing development being built right next door. But what Evan’s has been searching for, to no avail, is clarity from the city and York Region on rules around appropriate buffers between an active farm with livestock and the new human neighbours planning to move in next door.
“Obviously development is going to take place and we can’t stop it,” said Evans, who lives on a home on the property. “But what we are asking them to do is provide a suitable buffer between this dense urban development and our cow pasture, which is right next door,” said Evans.
“We have argued safety, we have argued incompatible land uses, we just want to know what’s the protocol? Well, apparently there is no protocol in Vaughan.”
What makes this case even more unique is that the farm is part of the Ontario Greenbelt — which means it will be around forever.
“For many years, we have dealt with temporary urban-agriculture interface where perhaps a farmer through development has marched northwards through York Region,” said Valerie Shuttleworth, Director for Long Range Planning at the Region. “This is not a temporary situation because this farm is in the Greenbelt, its not ever going to be sold for urban or commercial development. This is a permanent interface situation,” she said.
She says the region put forward a report asking the province to look at such situations as part of their submissions in the upcoming reviews of the Greenbelt Plan and provincial growth plans, because while it’s a unique scenario, “there will likely be others.”
Vaughan says it uses a provincial policy called the minimum distance separation guidelines, which calculates a distance using type of livestock facility, size of farm operation, manure handling practices, and form of development, either existing or proposed. The policy is meant to deal primarily with issues relating to odour, but not many other complaints such as noise, dust, smoke and strong odours.
Vaughan has also created policy relating to this specific subdivision which states that “compatibility measures be considered at the plan of subdivision stage.”
But Evans feels such a policy puts the decision in the hands of the developer and gives little protection to the farmer. She says she has tried to compromise: suggested to the city that they use the subdivisions’ storm water pond as a natural buffer or “aggressive vegetation” to create a buffer. In a deputation to the city from 2014, the landowner, Joseph Pandolfo, suggested a six foot fence between his property and the farm. Pandalfo did not respond to requests for comment.
“If this goes down, and we don’t get a buffer, urban farmers don’t stand a chance,” said Evans.
The Upper Cold Creek Farm was originally owned and operated by Evan’s grandfather, Grant Glassco a businessman and “gentleman farmer” who managed the beef cattle farm until his death in the late 1960s. In his will, Mr. Glassco gave almost 500 acres of the land to the Ontario Heritage Trust, to be protected as a natural landscape in perpetuity. The trust is now managed by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.
A cohort of developers purchased the land north of the farm before the Greenbelt legislation was implemented, and due to grandfathering provisions, they have been allowed to proceed with their development to build nearly 1,400 single detached homes and townhomes on what is mostly Greenbelt lands.
Environmental lawyer David Donelley, who represents the farm, says that policy such as the Greenbelt legislation does lay down rules to protect farmland, but municipalities are hesitant to implement them.
“I don’t think its right to say the policies aren’t in place, said Donnelly. “It’s just that nobody has done anything to protect farms,” he said. And the numbers seem to back him up. According to new numbers crunched by the environmental group, Environmental Defence, between 2002 and 2014, 19,000 hectares — 70 per cent of it Class 1 farmland —has been destroyed by sprawl in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region.
In Halton and Peel region, Agricultural Impact Assessments are required to evaluate development proposals that may impact existing and future agricultural activities. Donnelley says no such assessment was ever done by the city or the developers for the Evan’s farm — and no such requirement exists in York Region.
Evans says she is not against the development, but it is concerned about trespassing, lack of privacy, littering and the risk of humans living so close to cows, which roam freely on the land. She also wants provisions in the contracts of future homebuyers about the risks of living so close to a farm, to save her farm and the city from headaches in the future.
After years of trying to negotiate with the city, Evan’s is eventually heading to the OMB to force a resolution on the matter. She says leaving the farm is not an option.
“We were here first,” said Evans, who grew up on the farm. “We are committed to preserving and conserving our farm,” she said. “We want to keep it the way it is.”