Perth County residents show overwhelming support for farmhouse severances, not proposed rules

Perth County Warden Mert Schneider, right, speaks during the County Council public meeting on surplus farmhouse severances that was held in Monkton on Thursday, April 14

By Dan Rankin

At Perth County’s special public meeting at the Elma-Logan Arena in Monkton on Thursday, April 14, speaker after passionate speaker and letter after frustrated letter focused on the need for Perth County Council to not only follow through with plans to begin permitting landowners to sever surplus farmhouse dwellings, but to think again when it comes to instituting restrictive regulations, which residents say would benefit no one.

The meeting began with Perth County planner Allan Rothwell giving a background of the issue, including the Sept. 2011 decision by the Ontario Municipal Board to uphold Perth County’s decision to continue preventing the severances, and the June 2015 public meeting in Sebringville, at which several of the same people who spoke Thursday presented the same types of arguments. “Since that time, County Council has received several reports from our department as well as their own research and, in March this year, County Council chose to proceed to the public regarding a county-initiated amendment, which is the reason we’re here tonight,” Rothwell said.

The amendment to the county’s official plan would permit surplus farmhouse severances, so long as they satisfy a number of criteria. Among the criteria is a need for the land on which the surplus farm dwelling is situated to be held in the exact same ownership as the consolidated farm operation, and for a period of no less than five years; the land on which the surplus farm dwelling is situated must also be contiguous with the consolidated farm operation to which the farm dwelling has become surplus. Unattached properties, or properties located across roads or sideroads, would be ineligible.

For most of the following hour, farmers and other residents of Perth County who were unhappy with those criteria, but very interested in seeing farmhouse severances allowed once more, had their voices heard. Rothwell also read letters expressing similar feelings written by those unable to attend.

“Being contiguous is not a reality in the farming community,” wrote Perth South resident Linda Mills in one such letter. She said they own four farms, two of which have homes, and one of which they would be interested in severing. “None of them are touching… If a family member does not occupy the second home, it will be taken down as I am not in the business of becoming a landlord.”

The loss of farm houses was a topic mentioned frequently Thursday, as residents said they were worried about dwindling rural population, disappearing institutions such as schools, churches and fire halls, and steadily increasing tax bills.

In her letter, Mills also came out against the proposed regulation requiring all of the land involved in the severance to be held in the exact same ownership. “This is never advised by any accountant, financial or succession planner, to have all farm properties in the same name,” she said. “This is just not good business practice. This makes it impossible for almost any farmer to be able to sever under these guidelines.”

Former Perth South Councillor Gerry Wallis said he was also concerned about the regulation that would mean landowners would have to hold onto a piece of contiguous land for five years before a surplus farmhouse could be severed. “If someone buys a farm and wants to sever the house, I can assure you that house won’t last five years,” he said. “The world moves fast, and if you don’t keep up, you’re in trouble.”

Perth East farmer Bob Weir was more to the point in his letter. “In my opinion, what council has put forward serves almost no one,” he said, noting that more suitable methods of implementing surplus farmhouse severances have already been brought forward by the lower tier municipalities. “I would like to see Council stop wasting time and resources and get on board with the idea of Perth South and West. What they propose is very reasonable.”

It was tough to ignore the overwhelming amount of vocal support for surplus farmhouse dwelling severances Thursday, unless, of course, you were one of the few people who chose to speak out in favour of keeping surplus farmhouse severances prohibited in Perth County, unlike all neighbouring counties and counter to the province’s official policy.

The only voices in favour of maintaining the status quo Thursday were executive members of the Perth County Federation of Agriculture, including Joanne Foster, of West Perth, and Tim Halliday, of North Perth. “PCFA supports the current county official plan as it puts strong emphasis on the needs to protect the agricultural base that we already have,” Foster said, reading a pre-written statement. “We especially support the goal that is written within the official plan to provide agriculture with an area free from conflicting and/or incompatible land use activities, especially non-farm development.”

Foster referenced the concerns of farmers the PCFA had spoken to on the subject, who feared “the threat of normal farm practices being subject to nuisance complaints.”

“This concern needs to be recognized by the County of Perth and those that support the severances,” she said. No farmers with these concerns chose to write letters or speak Thursday. Instead, Foster’s claim was actually contradicted by a number of farmers who said they had never experienced rural tenants or non-farmers complaining about farm-related noises or smells. Farming neighbours, they said, were far more likely to complain about others’ farming practices.

Halliday said that he thought by aiming to permit surplus farmhouse severances, Perth County Council is “going about this a little bit backwards.”

“We should be focusing on economic development firstly, and then the housing issue will solve itself,” he said. “The demand for housing will solve itself thereafter.”

Perth South Mayor and past Perth County warden Robert Wilhelm responded to Halliday’s comment at the Perth South Council meeting on Tuesday evening. “The County has put a lot of money into economic development over the years, and continues to,” he said. “I think all the lower tiers are trying to do their best on economic development in conjunction with the County. How the issue of where people would live solves itself, is beyond me.”

More than once on Thursday, current Perth County Warden Mert Schneider reminded impassioned speakers that the public meeting was not a debate. “I’m here to listen,” he said. “We’re going to go back and discuss it.”

“I hope you listen!” said Downie farmer Keith Finnie, to some applause from the crowd.

“We came up with this in October and decided to bring it to a public meeting,” Schneider responded. “It might change, but not as much as maybe you want it to.”

Though North Perth and Perth East residents came out in favour of permitting less-regulated severances, alongside Perth West and South residents and elected representatives, long-lingering differences of opinion among the local lower-tier councils were still referenced. Perth South Councillor Bill Jeffrey gave an analogy of Perth County as an apartment complex with a leaky roof: “The North roof, it’s in good shape,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be too much concern. The roof to the East is in good shape too. West, theirs is leaking. To the South, there’s a hole in it. Every time it rains, the North and the East aren’t effected. The West, they’re getting wet. The South? It’s pouring in. That rain is tax time. Budget time. How are we going to fix this hole in the roof?”

“It’s no secret that North and East Perth seem to have turned their heads in a ‘not in my back yard attitude’,” said Perth South Councillor Melinda Zurbrigg. “Are your County Council members truly representing the best interests of the rate payers?”

At the close of the meeting, Schneider said County Council would give consideration to all the correspondence, reports and comments they had received. Their decision could take place at their next regular meeting on Thursday, May 5.

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