City, feds aim to defuse future spats over Experimental Farm shadows

The City of Ottawa and the federal government have begun a year-long process to find some middle ground between promoting denser development at a vital artery, and choking off research exploring ways to protect food production against such forces as climate change.

A working group involving staff from the city, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the National Capital Commission (NCC) is tasked with coming up with recommendations to mitigate the effect of development on the farm's research.

"There certainly is an opportunity for tension, or competing interests," Derrick Moodie, the city's director of planning, told city councillors Wednesday.

"But our goal through the exercise is to identify ways to achieve our goals and objectives ... which speak to density or creating that critical mass along the [bus rapid transit corridor] that will be sustainable, without having a significant impact on the farm."

The group is so far getting along well, Moodie added, noting it aims to arrive at a consensus by June 2025.

Derrick Moodie, the city of Ottawa's planning director, attends a committee meeting on June 19, 2024.
Derrick Moodie, the City of Ottawa's planning director, says staff have started meeting with federal partners and talks are going well. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Time to act is now, says councillor

Tensions reached a head last summer when councillors approved a pair of residential towers along Carling Avenue for a second time, after inadvertantly snubbing AAFC with the first attempt.

Stefanie Beck, who at the time was deputy minister for the department, called it "ironic" that developers were promoting a view of the farm since too much development could lead to its demise.

The debate has at times revolved around which experts to believe, as developer-hired consultants clashed with federal scientists.

This map shows the transit corridors and planned developments that border the Central Experimental Farm.
This map shows where two recently approved developments border the Central Experimental Farm, along with the city's planned transit corridors. (CBC News Graphics)

The city hopes to defuse future disagreements by spending $50,000 on an independent study.

That led councillors to ask what the federal government is contributing, especially since no one from AAFC raised concerns when staff classified the farm as a "green space" during the official plan process.

"Either this land is of critical importance for agriculture research or it isn't. And they have significant tools available to them. So the question is, why aren't they using those tools," asked Coun. Riley Brockington, whose River ward borders the farm.

"We're really going to see significant growth in the City of Ottawa over the next 30 years. We know at least 400,000 people are coming. The time is now."

Protective legislation has been a matter of discussion since the late NPD MP Paul Dewar pushed for a law to protect Gatineau Park from builders, Brockington said.

River ward Coun. Riley Brockington attends a meeting of Ottawa's planning and housing committee on June 19, 2024.
River ward Coun. Riley Brockington wants to know why the federal government hasn't done more to protect the land it regarda as crucial. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Pausing development the 'nuclear option'

Many around the committee table have been less than sympathetic to the plight of scientists, musing at times about options to redevelop the farm itself, and repeating the city's conclusion that any challenge to these development projects would fail based on a lack of legal right to sunlight.

But the pressure from the public has been impossible to ignore.

"I think that the concern that some people have is that if you compromise one type of research on the farm, that the federal government may start to think, this isn't land that we can use for research at all,'' said Coun. Jeff Leiper, who chairs the planning committee.

"I don't think that that is a realistic outcome."

Recent suggestions by community groups to pause all nearby development approvals likewise feels like the "nuclear option," and would almost certainly fail to receive council support, Leiper said.

With housing pressures mounting and interest rate changes providing a ray of hope to developers, Brockington said this is the moment to act.

"It's a matter of time," he said. "That's why I want this working group to meet, have those discussions and come to some sort of an agreement."

AAFC declined CBC's request for an interview, but provided a written statement saying it's pleased to be part of the working group and remains committed to ensuring the integrity of research at the farm is not undermined.

Asked about the possibility of federal legislature to increase protections, a spokesperson wrote: "Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will continue to support the Ottawa Research and Development Centre, located at the Central Experimental Farm, and the valuable agricultural research being conducted there, which is vital to food security in Canada and around the world."