“Does agriculture overrule heritage?”
That was a question Andrea Leyva posed to Perth County council during the special meeting to receive public comment on the issue of surplus farmhouse severances Tuesday at the Sebringville Community Centre. Leyva, who lives in a home that’s been in the Bauer family since the 1860s, was a part of the majority of speakers Tuesday who had come to encourage county council to reverse their longstanding position on farmhouse severances.
“My grandfather took pride in the fact that Perth County had good soil to grow rich crops, but also in the fact that the home and land he had was passed down to him by his father,” she said, holding up a framed black-and-white photo of her grandfather’s grandfather and some other ancestors posed in front of the house where she and her family currently lives. “But the policy that’s in place now makes it next to impossible for a family member, like myself, to buy a farm with home and land at fair market value these days. Perth County heritage is slowly being destroyed, literally brick by brick.”
Based on two submitted letters and 20 speakers Tuesday, the number of people who were in favour of permitting surplus farmhouse severances in some form outnumbered those in favour of the status quo by a margin of 16 to six, or almost three to one. Comments were received by council, who are in the middle of conducting a review of their official plan.
The issue revolves around Section 5.6.3 of the County Official Plan, drafted in December 1997, which prohibits throughout the county the creation of any new non-farm residential lots, including surplus farmhouse severances. Twice in 2009, county council considered whether to allow the practice in West Perth and Perth South, and twice chose not to amend the official plan. In 2011, the Ontario Municipal Board dismissed an appeal of the county’s refusal of West Perth and Perth South’s amendment.
“Here we are again disputing the same issue,” said Perth South resident Marianne De Brabandere. “We’re proud that Perth County is a leader in livestock production, as are its neighbouring counties. Middlesex and Huron have allowed the option of surplus farm severances, so it appears there’s no fear there of a negative impact on livestock expansion as a result of that. What makes Perth County different?”
De Brabandere continued, saying that, while Perth County’s planning department claims to have some of the most supportive and protective agricultural policies in the province, “It appears that they also have some of the most restrictive, and as we see here tonight, divisive policies.”
“It’s my opinion that good farming business requires the right to have options,” she said. “Not all farm surplus houses are meant to be severed. No one says they have to be. But for ones that are, it means better efficiency for the farmer, increased taxes for the township, and improved neighbourhoods. That’s a win-win.”
The first voice to the microphone in favour of continuing the prohibition of farmhouse severances was Perth County Federation of Agriculture representative and North Perth resident Tim Halliday.
“There are too many cons to this for our board to be supporting anything else except what the present policy is,” he said, noting that the Perth County dairy, cash crops and pork industries are all among the most productive in the province. “For that, we need farmland, access to our farms, and we need to conduct our farming operations as a business, and in a method we can do without worrying about our influence on our neighbours.”
West Perth beef farmer, and member of the Ontario Beef Farmers board of directors, Jack Chaffe also supported the county’s current policy. While some speakers Tuesday described how they were in support of allowing severances so they could sell the homes to their children, Chaffe pointed out that, “the next people who own a severed house might not be so forgiving to that neighbouring farm.” He went on to suggest that agriculture infrastructure such as barns generate far more tax dollars for all levels of government than homes.
Another West Perth resident accused some people who seek to move to the country of doing so without snowblowers or other necessary equipment, and of using farmlanes and the sides of roads as overflow parking spaces.
These comments led West Perth councillor Dean Trentowsky to approach the microphone. “We are vibrant [agriculturally], but how long will this continue?” he asked. “Why are farmers’ ages going up, and the average age of our population going up? Why are our schools, churches and stores struggling to stay in operation? Why are we struggling to pay for our local services? There will come a point in time, if the trends continue, that we will not be able to sustain the community we have now. There needs to be a fair and equitable compromise to keep our communities strong.”
Perth South was also well-represented at the meeting; apart from Perth County warden and Perth South Mayor Bob Wilhelm, seated with the county, Perth South councillors Stuart Arkett and Melinda Zurbrigg stood up in support of permitting farmhouse severances as a measure to fight rural depopulation, with several other councillors and municipal staff visible in the assembled crowd of over 70 people.
An issue especially of concern for many speakers in favour of permitting the severances was the loss of rural schools brought about by the mass demolition of country homes.
“I’ve been in the States where I’ve seen children riding 30 miles one way to school in what used to be an area just like Perth County… because houses weren’t allowed to be severed off,” said Bill French, a retired Fullarton-area farmer.
“In Perth South, 30 surplus farm dwellings have been demolished and not replaced since 2000,” said London-based planning consultant Richard Zelinka, noting that most farmers prefer not to also become landlords. “In West Perth, the number is 73 that have been torn down and not replaced within the farming community.”
By permitting severances, the municipality could benefit from the increased tax assessment that would come from home owners reinvesting in and updating their properties, he said. “In fact, many people seeking these properties have rural roots,” he said.
While Perth County may see its policy as protecting prime farm land in the region, that’s not preventing surrounding towns and cities from annexing farmland for new residential development, Perth East live stock farmer John Van Dyke said. “That land west of [Stratford] is better than all of my farmland, and they’ve filled it full of houses,” he said. “All of Perth County should allow severances of surplus farm dwellings.”
Van Dyke said, for him, the question isn’t whether the county should allow the severance of surplus farm dwellings, but what should be allowed on the land there. “One acre of land could easily support two houses, possibly a duplex, or a country cul de sac,” he said. “How about a group home for kids with special needs?”
Taking it a step further, he even proposed severing five or 10 acre lots, where possible, to create small-scale intensive agriculture and agri-tourism destinations – provided they “enhance Perth County.”
“I find Perth County kind of boring actually,” he said, to some laughs from the crowd. “In some counties there are all kinds of stuff going on. We’re making Perth County boring.”
Some other young farmers echoed Van Dyke’s sentiments, including 30-year-old Bob Weir, whose animated speech was the last of the evening.
“I don’t get being so worried about having people moving into the community,” he said. “I can’t understand that. I worked hard so I could live here. It’s a great place to be and that’s the point. I cannot believe you’re planning on possibly moving city trash to the country but you won’t move city people.”
“When I’m 50, I want more than two houses on my block,” he said. “Everyone is so worried. About what? Having a community?”
Anyone interested in following the development of the farmhouse severances issue are invited to contact Rothwell (email@example.com) or county clerk Jilleene Bellchamber-Glazier (firstname.lastname@example.org).