Some 50-60 people attended an open house to learn about a new local landowners’ group that wants to be heard regarding the future of Chatham-Kent’s rural area.

The Chatham-Kent Property Owners Association welcomed interested residents to the Hidden Hills Golf Course on March 4 as they explained their purpose and signed new members.

“Our mandate is to preserve property rights as they relate to ownership, management practices and food security in Chatham-Kent,” said Jim Brackett, vice president of the CKPOA.

Brackett is a retired farmer who still lives on his New Scotland Line property near Rondeau and continues to support farmers.

He said the group simply wants to have a say on decisions that affect the farming community, such as the municipality’s controversial tree-cutting bylaw.

“We’re just trying to be heard and recognized,” said Brackett. “We’re a group that will lobby for those issues.”

Brackett said he and other members had made deputations on an individual basis on farming items to Chatham-Kent Council in the past. But when the temporary woodlot conservation was introduced two years ago, several farmers started meeting informally as a small group, eventually forming the Property Owners’ Association.

Ron Verhelle is the president of the association, John Sarapanickas the secretary and Luuk Huisman the treasurer.

The group has grown to close to 100 members in a short period of time and meets about once a month, but it has yet to be on a regularly scheduled basis.

The association is aligned in philosophy with other agricultural organizations such as the Kent Federation of Agriculture, Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Grain Farmers of Ontario as many farmers in the new group are members of these boards.

The association is only open to Chatham-Kent residents as they concentrate on local issues such as the tree-cutting controversy, drainage, safe fertilizer practice, housing of migrant workers and the loss of farmland to residential and industrial growth.

“We believe that we own the land, and we have the right to make farmland out of it if we need to,” Brackett said. “But it has become far more complicated than that and becomes a question of municipal politics in relation to global warming.”

Since Chatham-Kent declared a climate emergency in 2019, the municipality has to show ‘best practices’ when seeking funds from the provincial and federal governments, which prompted the temporary woodlot conservation bylaw.

Farmers feel that the natural heritage implementation strategy from the moratorium on clear-cutting in 2013 was working just fine before the temporary woodlot conservation bylaw was imposed on them in the spring of 2021.

“We’re being told that if we have land that we want to be cleared, but it wasn’t cleared when the first people farmed it or down through the ages, that now we can’t clear it because you might disturb the ecosystem,” said Brackett. “That depends on how you view the ecosystem, it exists on farmland as well … it’s not just in the middle of a bush, in a stream or in a wetland … it’s everywhere, including farmland.”

“We are a part of that ecosystem,” he continued. “And that’s what a lot of our opposition seems to forget that as humans, as a part of nature and our world, we need to live, and in order to live, we need food, and in order to have food, we need farmland.”

A major concern to the farming community is the loss of land to residential and industrial expansion as well as a steady decline in the number of farmers.

The Ontario Farmland Trust reports that the province is losing about 319 acres a day, and farmers represent about two percent of the province’s population are farmers.

“We have such a small percentage of the population. Unless we learn to lobby better, we’re going to be saddled with a lot of decisions that may or may not benefit our food system or farmers,” Brackett said.

If anyone is interested in more information or joining the group, contact any executive or go to its Chatham-Kent Property Owners Association Inc. Facebook page.

The new Chatham-Kent landowners’ group wants a seat at the table when municipalities make decisions about rural property. 

“Part of the reason we formed this group is we weren’t heard as property owners,” said group president Ron Verhelle, citing Chatham-Kent’s temporary woodlot conservation bylaw as an example.

“We had no idea it was coming, then all of sudden, boom, it’s that,” said Verhelle, a longtime Bothwell-area farmer and business owner.

Mike Randall, an association director, said it was working.

“It was made that you take out the dead stuff, and then replant it,” he said. “It worked, the numbers were there and they just shut it off.”

The Chatham-Kent Property Owners Association held its first open house Saturday, drawing dozens, offering information and signing up members.

Randall also points to the loss of farmland to development provincewide.

Verhelle said there are now claims area farmers are not sustainable in agriculture.

“I spent $14,000 on soil tests,” he said. “I’m not going to waste fertilizer; I’m not going to pollute the environment.”

He also cites the numerous windbreaks created by planting trees that can be seen across the municipality to help prevent erosion. Verhelle added he has windbreaks still standing he planted in 1980.

The association also has concerns about drainage, including some landowners’ refusal to allow proper cleaning of municipal drains to ensure proper and efficient drainage of farmland.

Chatham-Kent has about one-fifth of Ontario’s municipal drains, which come with a large number of bridges and culverts.

“We want a seat at the table,” Verhelle said, with a formal communication link with the municipality so property owners’ interests will be represented and included in new policies.

“Farmers and (agriculture) businesspeople will work with the municipality to make it a better place,” Verhelle said.

“What I’ve heard so far is definitely about the tree cover, which is going to come up again at council, and draining,” said North Kent Coun. Jamie McGrail, who attended the open house. “I think some more voices are good – a unified voice would be great.”

“The municipality needs to understand when a bylaw is created, or a change is made, how on the ground level this affects the individuals,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of co-operative messages that can be put forward to council and in general by the association,” said Jay Cunningham, past president of the Kent Federation of Agriculture, adding better communication with local government is “vitally important” to the agricultural community.

“We’re a relatively small amount of the population who owns almost all of the land,” he said. “When you’re talking about that aspect . . . it’s important for us to be able to communicate effectively and often.”

By Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 13, 2023 at 12:42

This item reprinted with permission from   The Independent News   Ridgetown, Ontario
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