August 15, 2008
By Stuart Service

Landscape Ontario is urging the Region of Halton to examine the motives, rationale, premises and goals of land use policies and let potential results guide any new policies.

The request is in response to Halton’s present study on whether exceptions can be granted to businesses located on land zoned agricultural or rural.

The companies in question are involved in the business of ornamental horticulture, which includes landscape contractors, landscape maintenance companies, lawn care companies, greenhouse operations, nursery growers and garden centres.

“Currently, most of the ones (businesses) that exist, the zoning doesn’t permit,” said Steven Wever of GSP Group, the consulting company hired by the Region to arrive at a recommendation on land use. “There are some areas in the urban envelope that permit the land use, like industrial areas. In the rural areas they’re really not permitted, but they do exist.”

Wever stopped short of saying whether business owners will be required to obtain a permit, or an amendment to the regional official plan, in order to continue to operate legally.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. What is the appropriate municipal approval process for this? We don’t have any answers at this point,” he said.

During the Region of Durham’s review of its official plan, changes adopted in 2007 allowed exceptions for small-scale landscaping businesses to continue operating on non-prime agricultural land. “We essentially recognized that these uses can be considered in a rural area,” Nestor Chornobay, Durham Region Director of Strategtic Planning, said in an interview.

Wever says Durham council’s official plan review will have no bearing on the Region of Halton’s landscape contractors’ study. “We’re not modelling our approach after Durham’s approach,” he said. “We don’t know what direction we’re heading, but we’re looking for a made-in-Halton solution.”

The study was initiated when the City of Burlington was in the process of completing a review of its official plan last year. City planner Greg Simon said a land use requirement for horticultural companies could only be introduced at the regional level.

“The Region’s official plan policies did not allow us to introduce that use,” said Simon, “so that’s why we have to do a special study. We’re not singling out landscape contractors in Burlington ... the only way we can deal with it is through this study.”
Open houses were held in June in the communities of Burlington, Milton and Halton Hills. Oakville is not taking part in the regional study.

Region of Halton senior planner Stirling Todd said the zoning study was initiated by lax property maintenance.

“If everybody really took care of their properties, and there were no bylaw enforcement complaints, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Todd said. “Some contractors have beautiful landscaping, like they do at their client’s property. Others just let it go to hell in a hand basket.”

Sean James, president of Fern Ridge Landscaping, started his business on a mixed-use plot of land in Brookville. “We went to great lengths to keep our site nice, neat and clean.  We landscaped the front of it and we made it look pretty,” James said in an interview. “Eventually, most of the neighbours became our customers.” James’ staff of 12 currently store equipment at a Campbellville yard near Guelph Line. The company’s head office runs out of James’ residence in downtown Milton.  

“I don’t think that we need an extra level of rules to make being a small business owner in Halton that much more difficult,” he said. “If you do business badly and the neighbours complain – let’s say you’re affecting your neighbours’ property values or their quality of life – I expect that the rules are there today to make those people behave a little more socially responsibly.”

In a position paper outlining Landscape Ontario’s position on land use, the document signed by LO executive director Tony DiGiovanni notes that few of the 10,000 ornamental horticulture businesses in the province are located on industrial or commercial zoning.   

Locating horticultural businesses on rural land allows operations to “have the freedom to diversify into related ornamental sectors such as nursery growing and greenhouse growing if they are located on agricultural land,” the position paper reads.  
A “restrictive and segmentation” approach to land use policies for landscape businesses, the document continues, would “risk the danger of limiting the flexibility of traditional farmers to expand into plant production and ornamental horticulture activities.”

The senior regional planner and consultant heading the Halton study both say the approval process for individual business owners may not match the size of an operation’s original, permitted use.

Consultant Steven Wever said landscape operations “may have started as a one- or two-person operation and no check points were ever made when they grew and became larger operations.”

He added, “It’s a problem in many municipalities in that a lot of these landscaping operations end up before an Ontario Municipal Board hearing, or just established without checking with the municipality if they’re permitted.”

In 2000, the Town of Ancaster – one year prior to its amalgamation with the City of Hamilton – challenged the agricultural land designation of Heritage Green Landscape Contractors before the OMB.  

Bernie Schutten, president of Heritage Green, said that representation from Landscape Ontario on behalf of his business at the hearing swayed the OMB’s ruling in his favour.

“Helpful? You’re darn right,” Schutten said of a presentation by DiGiovanni at the hearing, adding that he helped the OMB “understand how landscape companies came about.”

Nearly eight years later, and after denting his wallet “anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000” in legal costs, Schutten said businesses in ornamental horticulture can coexist with their neighbours in just about any zoning. “Landscape companies, by just the virtue of the type of work, don’t charge the same as your plumbers and electricians,” Schutten continued. “They can’t go into the industrial [land use] and pay those kinds of property taxes.”