Chatham farm organization not happy with bylaw process

·4 min read

The Kent Federation of Agriculture is sounding their displeasure regarding the latest step in Chatham-Kent’s tree cutting bylaw saga.

April 26, council passed a temporary bylaw preventing the clear cutting of trees in areas designated as woodlots. They exercised this authority under a Municipal Act provision allowing them to “prohibit or regulate the destruction or injuring of trees.”

Traditionally these areas have been zoned as agricultural land, allowing for owners to make their own calls about what to do with the trees.

The municipality conducted a virtual survey to gather residents’ opinions on whether they’d like the clear cutting bylaw to become permanent or not when it expires Aug. 24. It also asked for input on other possible solutions to Chatham-Kent’s low tree coverage issue, such as incentives for landowners to not cut down trees or what size a ‘woodlot’ should actually be.

But the process isn’t sitting well with one of the region’s major farm organizations, who feel they should have had a bigger say in the debate.

“They have instilled this bylaw much to our dismay,” says Jay Cunningham, president of the Kent Federation of Agriculture. “But with it in place, we knew there was going to be a consultation process to determine whether it should stay or go. We figured we were naturally the ones… to have some direct input. Because it’s our members that are impacted.”

“This impacts rural landowners, it doesn’t impact the rest of the population of Chatham-Kent, yet they’re being asked for input. It’s a little ridiculous.”

In June, the organization held a special meeting to reiterate their position that no bylaw should be enacted. They also reaffirmed their support for Chatham-Kent’s Natural Heritage Implementation Strategy.

Potential modifications to private property usually involve a requirement to make the proposed changes available for public input, generally at council. But Cunningham says this is an issue affecting rural landowners, and therefore they should have been the municipality’s primary consultants.

“They opened it up to everybody and not everybody has skin in the game. We as landowners have all the skin in the game,” he says.

Cunningham believes the issue goes to the heart of landowner’s rights. “I think it would have a dramatic, negative impact on anybody who values their property rights. I think that’s what we’re going to lose here,” he says on the idea of a permanent tree cutting bylaw.

“We don’t want to handcuff people from being able to do things on their own property that they deem to be the appropriate action. I believe that almost all of the farmers in Chatham-Kent who own farmland are the best stewards of the land and this bylaw suppresses them from being able to manage their own land,” says Cunningham.

However, since the survey did go ahead – just closing to public input July 9 – Cunningham says he encouraged all KFA members to make sure their voices were heard. “We are strongly encouraging all of our members, whether they like the survey or not, to participate in it. Because that is the only avenue that we’ve been given at this time.”

Cunningham says that although he didn’t find the survey very impartial, “there’s been a healthy amount of participation,” including himself. “Whenever we meet with members, whenever we talk to our members… everything strongly encourages members to get in there and participate. We understand that it’s not our preferred methodology but it is what we have to work with so we don’t want to just turn a blind eye and say no, we’re not going to play. We’re going to play.”

Council will now go over the survey findings and present them at a future meeting. Meanwhile, KFA pushback is planned to continue in force.

“We are going to continue to ask for members to vocalize with all of the councillors that they can that this is a bad idea, that this is a bad bylaw and when it comes back to them for consideration they need to turn it down and go back to the Natural Heritage Implementation Strategy,” says Cunningham.

This strategy, enacted in 2014, outlined several ways all Chatham-Kent residents could contribute to the municipality's environmental sustainability goals. Many of these involve current farm practices.

“It’s multi-level, it does work and it has had very positive results so far,” says Cunningham. “Instead of it being a punitive bylaw, it is an encouraging and educational structure that works closely with Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority and the municipality to promote doing the right thing rather than looking like you’re stopping people from doing something else.”

With an expected high stakes council meeting before the temporary bylaw ends next month, a potential warning too for councillors pondering their stance.

“We’re only a year away from a municipal election… if we lose a bunch of support, especially rural, for this, that’s going to have a pretty negative impact for anybody that wants to run for council,” says Cunningham.

“People will remember.”

Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent

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