By Dan Rankin
Nine members of the public joined several Perth South councillors, the mayor, staff and some West Perth municipal officials at the township offices in St. Pauls on Wednesday to discuss strategy ahead of an upcoming Perth County meeting on proposed policy changes to surplus farmhouse severances.
The county meeting, set for next Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 pm at the Elma-Logan Arena in Monkton, will allow for public input into the policy changes, which would include permitting surplus farmhouse severances, which are currently prohibited by the county’s official policy. County Council may decide to vote on the proposed change at the meeting, or they may defer the decision to a future County Council meeting.
It has long been a contentious issue in the county, with the less populous municipalities of West Perth and Perth South generally arguing in favour of allowing surplus farmhouse severances to maintain rural population, and to prevent the demolition of century-old farmhouses.
Within the past 10 years, it is estimated that 73 surplus farmhouse dwellings have been demolished and not replaced in West Perth, West Perth CAO Jeff Brick said. If even half of those houses had stayed standing and been severed, it could have prevented an annual taxation loss to the municipality, county and education totalling about $66,000, he said.
The loss of taxation and population has also put them at risk of losing rural community and cultural fabric, perhaps best illustrated by the possible future closing of Mitchell High School, he said. “We know that Mitchell High School would be the next one in the school board for high schools to consider [closing],” said Brick. “Saving surplus farmhouses, or changing the policy, is not going to be on its own enough to save Mitchell High School, but it’s another contributing factor to its loss.”
It’s easy to draw comparisons locally, to an institution such as South Perth Centennial School (October 2015 enrolment: 159).
“Hospital funding is done in a similar kind of way – by number of heads,” he said. “These things all kind of incrementally add up to hurting us financially and hurting the social culture of our communities.”
The county’s proposed changes would permit surplus farmhouses severances so long as they fit several criteria, including that the applicant must own what is deemed to be a surplus house for five years, that the surplus house is in the same name as the applicant’s home farm, and that the surplus house must be contiguous with the home farm.
“It has to be on either the left or right hand side of where your home farm is, or it can be right behind,” West Perth Mayor Walter McKenzie said. “It can’t be across the road. It can also be ‘kitty-corner’ if [the two properties touch] at an anchor post… they have to be touching.”
After showing a presentation he had given to West Perth Council back in February, West Perth CAO Jeff Brick concluded that allowing surplus farmhouse severances but demanding that the properties be contiguous “isn’t enough change and it’s not going to have any effect.”
Those policies would mean no more than nine farmhouses would be eligible to be severed across West Perth, he said. However, West Perth has come up with a different proposal that would support the county’s other criteria, while changing the allowable proximity from “contiguous” to “within 1 km,” or even to “within 3 km.”
“That allows you to pick up a house across the road or one or two farms over, or across a side road – which is very common in West Perth,” Brick said. “That would give 50 opportunities [for severances]. If you move it out to 3 km, you go up to 70.”
Perth South has expressed a support for West Perth’s plan to change the proximity rules in the proposed changes.
Perth South Deputy Mayor Jim Aitcheson explained how, when a surplus farmhouse dwelling is severed – something that is permitted in the province’s official plan and in neighbouring counties – the assessment for that home and its one acre lot essentially doubles, which would be a benefit to any municipality struggling with Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund cuts.
The trouble as far as Perth South and Perth West are concerned, is that the whole county does not see things the same way.
“I don’t believe Perth County really knows the impact of consolidation,” said Coun. Sam Courriveau at the Perth South’s April 5 Council meeting. “It’s been rapid here.”
“The North and South have very big differences,” Perth South Mayor Robert Wilhelm said during Tuesday’s Economic Development Committee meeting. He pointed out that in Listowel last year 67 new houses were built. “That gives you some idea of new taxes alone. Why do they need economic development in the country?”
“We have big needs,” he said. “We don’t have the support of the county for, necessarily, what our needs are in Perth South. We need to figure out a way to get around that and work with all of our municipalities to benefit Perth South. We don’t have hurdles. We have walls. We have to get over them.”
He encourage Perth South residents affected by or itnerested in the issue of surplus farmhouse dwelling severances to attend the meeting next Thursday in Monkton. “We certainly ask that you let your neighbours know and people you know that this is certainly an important issue with the county and the townships,” he said. “We need to maintain all the houses, buildings, that we have and certainly try to get more. We certainly hope we see a good turnout on April 14.”