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An Historic Overview

In the total Canadian landscape the tiny Niagara Peninsula seems to be quite insignificant . Averaging only 40 kilometres in width between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and stretching just 65 kilometres from Hamilton to the Niagara river, its size belies Niagara's importance in the provincial and the national agricultural picture, especially its ability to grow tender fruit and grapes.

With only 6% of Canada able to grow food on classes 1 to 3 land , and of this only a few million acres (0.5%) being class 1 land i.e. without any significant limitations for growing food, Niagara's special land base of 15,000 acres of tender fruit land and between 15,000 and 20,000 acres of grape land is a minuscule and very precious resource, regionally, provincially and nationally.

Even within Niagara, where most of the farmlands are classes 1-3, the predominantly class 1 fruit lands comprise only 15% of a total farmland base of 232,817 acres. Yet in 1996 they were responsible for 86% of the grapes and 82% of tender fruit produced in Ontario. To-day, 80% of Canada's grapes are grown in Niagara and tender fruit generated $40 million of the approximately $511 million in gross farm sales in 2001 and nearly $200 million of the nearly $11.8 billion in region-wide economic impacts.

In reviewing these impressive farm outputs, from such a scarce resource, it becomes apparent that Niagara fruit lands are very special and must be protected for future generations. This has been PALS task for almost thirty years, as a plethora of urban uses and abuses have threatened to diminish and even wipe out the fruit lands.

As stated in the early 1950's, by then Premier Leslie Frost " The fruit land of Niagara is doomed to vanish under industrial encroachment. We can't stop progress." Indeed by 1976 when PALS was formed, over a third of the fruit land was within municipal boundaries and a further third threatened by urban shadow. This rampant urban sprawl was halted in 1981, when at the end of a three year set of hearings, where PALS defended the land against a myriad of developers, municipalities and lawyers, the Ontario Municipal Board, determined restrictive urban boundaries for Niagara and declared that they should be "permanent" where they abutted tender fruit and grape lands.

With one significant exception, the over 500 acre expansion of the urban boundaries of the fruit growing area and Pelham on the Fonthill Kame in 2001, these boundaries have held, although the continued rapid rate of dividing the land through severances and other urban uses has threatened to bring a "death by a thousand cuts" to the unique fruit lands of Niagara.

Two recent governments have recognized the fragility of the land base, and made important plans to protect it for future generations of the public and farmers. First, in 1994, at the urging of PALS, the NDP Government of Ontario announced the Tender Fruit Land Program, which would have paid farmers to place restrictive covenants on their land, to protect it "in perpetuity." Linked with this visionary move they enacted strong Provincial Policy prohibiting development on all "specialty " crop lands such as these. The Tender Fruit Land program was cancelled by the incoming new government in 1995, just as the first restrictive covenants were to be place on the land.

Over the next ten years the 'bit -by - bit' urbanization of the unique fruit lands continued unabated, and cities within Niagara , such as its largest, St. Catharines, seemed anxious to ease their growth pangs through expansions onto fruit land.. In 2004, these extreme urban pressures were recognized by the Liberal Government, which acted to freeze development in Niagara , as part of its Greenbelt Plan. As of March 2005, the Government's Greenbelt Act ( Bill 127) the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) and Growth Management Act (Bill 135). are indicators of its strong intent to protect Niagara fruit lands.

Nevertheless, PALS knows from past experience that legislation and policies can be "rolled back" . and that there is the ultimate need for the use of "restrictive covenants " on these , the best lands in Canada, if they are to be permanently protected for future generations, for once gone, they can never be replaced.