Farmers, landholders and environmental advocates are continuing to muster opposition to a massive land expropriation by the Region of Waterloo for a secret industrial project on a massive chunk of prime farmland.

The project in Wilmot Township, about 120 kilometres west of Toronto, threatens to expropriate 310 hectares of prime farmland and has been shrouded in secrecy for months.

Despite multiple attempts by Canada’s National Observer to obtain information, the Region of Waterloo chair and councillors, as well as their counterparts in the Wilmot Township, refuse to disclose details of the project, citing the Municipal Act, which keeps closed-session discussions confidential.

All decisions about the land selection process have been made behind closed doors.

“There is still no indication of what this land will be used for,” said Alfred Lowrick, who represents the affected landowners and concerned citizens of Wilmot Township. “What we know so far is that the region does not have a buyer for the land. They may be looking at putting multiple industries on the land, which means multiple operations and multiple businesses will run here. This is not really what we think is the proper use for this property.”

After months of silence, two Wilmot Township councillors, Kris Wilkinson and Harvir Sidhu, expressed concerns about the process last week and called for greater transparency from the Region of Waterloo to release technical details of the project.

“We have been pressuring the mayor and the councillors to be more transparent for quite some time, and we are pleased with the response and having those councillors come forward to start breaking down the barriers,” said Lowrick. “Everything is kept in secrecy, which shouldn’t have been the case. The Region of Waterloo is obviously the organization here that needs to step up, take action, and come forward with some information which only they have.”

A statement from Fight for Farmland, a group representing residents and landowners who are against the proposed industrial development in the Township urged the councillors to reject the project and also encouraged other councillors to follow suit. “Councillors are elected to advocate for their community, and our community has been pleading with Wilmot Township for over three months now to reject this industrial site in favor of a more suitable, properly researched, and less impactful location that does not involve sacrificing prime agricultural land and causing so much environmental damage.”

The Fight For Farmland group is hosting two town hall meetings, including one today, for Wilmot residents to discuss the project. The session will include a presentation on key information and critical next steps. The group also launched an online petition that has garnered over 37,000 signatures. They are calling for an immediate halt to the expropriation of 770 acres of farmland in the area, arguing that this "forced acquisition" by the Region of Waterloo would severely impact Ontario's food security, farmers' livelihoods, and the environmental well-being of the community.

The project in Wilmot Township, about 120 kilometres northwest of Toronto, threatens to expropriate 310 hectares of prime farmland and has been shrouded in secrecy for months. #Farmland #Wilmot Township #farming families #expropriation

Land expropriation and legal implication

Lowrick told Canada’s National Observer the region has the right to expropriate land if it is deemed to be for the public good and interest, such as building roads, hospitals, or a hydro line that needs to go through certain sections.

“In this case, we know the region wants this for a private enterprise industrial site,” said Lowrick. “They are expropriating this land for private enterprise, and we are having a hard time understanding how this could be possible.”

Even if this land is used for the greater public use and interest, it shouldn’t be secretive, and the community should be informed and consulted, Lowrick added. “We feel the process has been flawed right from the beginning! I don't know who they [the region of Waterloo] were listening to, but it did not follow the original official plan, and it also didn't follow the processes that have been in place for years.”

Lowrick noted landowners have not yet received a letter of land expropriation. Once the expropriation notice is issued, farmers and landowners will be required to follow this process, he added. As well, landholders can legally demand a “hearing of necessity” under the Expropriations Act. “However, once the expropriation happens, it is unlikely to stop and typically becomes only a matter of how much compensation the farmers and the community are entitled to receive.”

Ordinarily, keeping the nature of a project secret would make it difficult for the region to demonstrate that expropriation is necessary, said Phil Pothen, land use and land development program manager at Environmental Defence.

“However recent changes to the laws around expropriation in Ontario make it much more difficult to challenge the necessity of expropriation.”

Expropriation law has been in flux in Ontario for the past several years, with the province making it easier for governments to exercise their right to take over land for public projects — and more changes could be on the way, according to documents reported on by The Narwhal this spring.

Pothen said farmers should challenge the expropriation effort by asking for a hearing of necessity — but adds that that may not be enough.

“Given the present provincial government's erosion of safeguards against expropriation, it's likely that the political fight against this scheme will be most important. Farmers and other advocates for rural Ontario will need to make this land grab politically toxic for Regional Council and for MPPs.”

Pothen warned that if governments can simply disregard and extend settlement boundaries whenever the possibility of new development arises, settlement boundaries become meaningless, and farming in southern Ontario is doomed.

He proposed that Waterloo Region should use its existing extensive land allocations for development and prioritize infill within urban areas rather than expanding into agricultural zones. This approach, he argued, would preserve farmland while accommodating industrial needs more sustainably.

The Region of Waterloo says it views its land assembly efforts as a generational project crucial for the economic future of the region.

“As this land assembly project continues, the Region is in continued conversation with landowners, which remains confidential and is common practice in professional real estate negotiations,” reads an email response from the Region. “We are committed to sharing more information as the project progresses.”

The region says the scale of investment is deemed essential as the region grows to accommodate one million people.

“Assembling shovel-ready land is about securing thousands of new jobs in our community and bringing billions of dollars of investment to our local economy. We are seeing this type of investment across the province and the positive impact it can make to the lives of residents.”

Canada's National Observer also reached out to Ontario's Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade for comments and details of the project but did not receive the requested information. In an emailed response, Vanessa De Matteis, a spokesperson for Victor Fedeli, Ontario's Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade, defended this kind of land assembly in the name of industrial development.

“Ontario currently has tens of billions of new, job-creating investments in the pipeline, more prospects than we have land readily available. That is why our government put a call out to municipalities across the province to get shovel-ready sites assembled so companies can set up shop and create good-paying jobs for their communities,” De Matteis wrote. “In order to be globally competitive, we now have a dedicated team at Invest Ontario who are vetting lands sent by our municipal partners. Companies from across the globe know that there is no better place to do business than Ontario.”

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Ontario is so impoverished that it cannot afford to retain its farmland, pay for infrastructure, shift to low-carbon fuels, pay for reasonable levels of medical and education services, nor allow the traditional legal rights of its citizens, while the government sees its job as managing economic growth for the wealthy. We are in a lot of trouble.

With all this secrecy around this project, one suspects that our failing premier Doug Ford has a hand in it somewhere, whom has been notorious for his secret backroom deals. We elect these people to manage things, secret deals should be considered fraudulent and investigated by the legal authorities.

Prime farm land should never be on the table, just like the green belt land in any deal.

The absence of consultation and lack of transparency, along with legislative changes such as the expropriation shortcuts of Bill 162, form part of the trend towards diminishing democratic process in Ontario, especially in all matters related to land use. Public trust is unfortunately becoming a sad casualty.

Nothing new under the sun. I suppose if we had the documentation we would find that the earliest tribes of homo sapiens, fell out and scrapped over access to prime grazing lands their migratory lives required. Throughout recorded history, we have all kinds of evidence of land disputes, even the bible records multiple instances.

Somewhere along the way, even democratic governments adopted the habits of Royalty and Aristocratic privilege and decreed for themselves the privilege of land seizure under the questionable doctrine of Eminent Domain. Even in my lifetime, as the US Interstate system was being built, people were dispossessed of their property under this doctrine, and paid less than the fair market value in exchange. This was especially true in the already semi derelict and undervalued lands that housed minority populations. They were targeted because the land was cheap, and because the impoverished inhabitants had no money to dispute the expropriation. These massive dislocations pushed highways through the most densely populated parts of the North Eastern US and through urban areas across the nation. The pattern was unmistakable and is now so well documented and known it is the bedrock example of environmental injustice. Various examples of opportunistic "eminent domain" land seizure have erupted in notable legal action. Municipalities have attempted to seize lands it deems "under-utillized" so that it can be re-developed and the governmental unit can benefit from enhanced property values and property tax revenue. Gentrification is the operative corporate response and argument that cities fall for and that has largely fueled the housing crisis.

Dispossessing farmers is another kettle of fish. Once built upon it is unheard of that once productive agricultural land can be restored. Paved over is gone forever.

In this case, , perhaps hoping to avoid the NIMBY response, blackout secrecy over the proceedings has only spurred resistance and suspicion. It seems the public has little tolerance for "star chamber" proceedings .