'Nobody's happy': Land grabs, secrecy and big changes roil one rural community
CENTRAL ELGIN – Sky-high water rates helped drive voters here to clean house on their municipal council last fall.
Months into the new council term, the top bureaucrat tasked with leading the newcomers announced his resignation.
Now, residents and politicians in this rural municipality of 14,000 near St. Thomas are dealing with the fallout of its latest blow, 600 hectares of farmland snatched up for future industry without a say.
“Nobody's happy," said Barb Payne, one of several residents whose property borders the farmland St. Thomas is redeveloping for future industry.
"All of these people (near the site). Nobody asked them. Nobody sat down and asked, 'What do you think?'" she said.
Like others in the area, Payne has lived on her property for more than 40 years. After learning the province passed legislation to annex the land from her municipality to St. Thomas, she's now searching for a new home.
“All the beautiful trees are lying on the ground. It’s sickening," she said of the crews who began clearing the land days ago.
The lands in question start in east St. Thomas and are bounded by Highbury Avenue, Ron McNeil Line, Yarmouth Centre Road, and the rail line north of Highway 3.
St. Thomas announced last summer the city bought 320 hectares of that land to woo future industry, including the possibility of an electric vehicle (EV) battery plant. Last month, it nearly doubled the size, sweeping up another 280 hectares of adjacent land to create an "investment-ready mega-site" for global manufacturers.
The deal was quickly sealed recently when the Ontario government passed legislation that adjusts the municipal boundaries so the entire parcel is all in St. Thomas. The legislation, Bill 63, would effectively speed up site development as permits and assessments would fall under one municipality instead of two.
Central Elgin's Mayor Andrew Sloan said he was "taken completely off guard" when he learned the province would annex the farmland without consultation. Seventy-five per cent of which, he previously said in a news release, belongs to his municipality.
In a follow-up interview, Sloan declined to discuss the details of that boundary change, saying he and his Central Elgin council colleagues are "bound by a nondisclosure agreement."
Tempers are flaring among residents who say they were never consulted about the move and are left in the dark over what's to come.
"On the political side of things, why the hell were we not notified that this was happening? Or why didn't we get some kind of (notice)," said Laurie Freiberg, who lives with her husband, Derek, near the boundary lines.
“There was nothing. I just don't understand why this was such a secretive thing," she said.
While residents don't dispute the argument that job growth is good for the region, they share many concerns about the shrinking farmland and worry whether Central Elgin will benefit from the development.
"No one is opposed to proper planning growth, and everyone does welcome the opportunity for new jobs and new opportunities in our community," said Bill Walters, who served as Central Elgin’s first mayor in 1998 and again in 2010.
"However," he said. "everyone is extremely frustrated with the lack of communication, the secrecy, and the fact that there is only one spokesman for this whole project which is the mayor of St. Thomas."
St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston remained tight-lipped Friday, saying there was little he could share as negotiations were underway "on a user of the site."
Asked about the lack of consultation, he said the city had "a number of meetings" with Central Elgin and Elgin County before the legislation was announced.
Rob Flack, MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London, said conversations about the boundary change were held between the province and Central Elgin before the legislation was proposed.
“They were done through the use of non-disclosure agreements for the sake of keeping confidences,” he said.
“The bigger process here was, we’re in severe competition with about 40 American states, and we're trying to attract global investment that is going to bring sustainable, long-term jobs. We had to put together a massive amount of land that could fit the definitions and criteria that a global investor would want, which is why we did it.”
But many residents questioned why the city and province wouldn’t grab land already ready for development, such as the site of the former Ford assembly plant in Talbotville, vacant for years, but now home to an Amazon distribution centre.
“There was 1,500 acres of vacant land there. So, explain to me why we wouldn’t use what has already been planned to be industrial ground before we would go and gobble up a brand new block?” Walters said.
Also at play are residents' concerns about their sky-high water bills and taxes, something many voters cited as a reason for voting out Central Elgin's last council.
“Our taxes here are like $5,200 a year. And we’re going to do this? This isn’t going to help my taxes. This is going to help the City of St. Thomas," Freiberg said.
Walters cautioned about a lack of long-term planning of other services to keep up with the growth in and around Central Elgin. For him, one of the biggest concerns is whether the municipality will be compensated.
"If we don't have that commercial, industrial land still in our basket, and we don't have the opportunity to grow, how do we ever remain viable?" he asked.
"One of the most important things in this is, what is going to be fair and equitable compensation for the land they took? Hopefully, that's a long-term tax assessment that Central Elgin and the county will get into perpetuity."
Last week, as the new legislation moved quickly through the house, Sloan met with Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Flack to discuss how the annexation would affect Central Elgin.
“They’ve established a process on how we work to share ... the revenues on a going-forward basis," Sloan said, adding they'd bring in a facilitator.
"The exact words from the province were that 'Central Elgin would be made whole,'" and he said the definition of that is what they plan to negotiate.
He said potential revenue from the development would help lower water bills and taxes. "We don't have a lot of industrial taxation, so that's why we are hoping to grow our industrial presence, to develop our industrial community."
The worry and frustration expressed by many in Central Elgin comes on the heels of its top administrator's resignation and the retirement of its deputy clerk.
Chief administrator Paul Shipway announced last month he'd resign from the post just three months after the new council took over.
“Paul Shipway, in my mind, is a great CAO, and I’m still convinced he is, so I was very disappointed” to learn the news, said Tom Marks, the Central Elgin’s former deputy mayor and past warden for Elgin County.
Shipway led the last council and municipal staff to secure several grants for major projects and even helped land the municipality a prominent award recognizing its commitment to meeting the highest budgeting principles.
Shipway did not return multiple requests for comment. His last day was Friday.
Sloan declined to comment on Shipway’s departure, saying he does not discuss “personnel matters.”
Marks said he didn’t know what pushed Shipway to leave but hinted at broader tensions behind the council curtain.
"Central Elgin had one of the most highly respected CAO in the area and that you could ask for," added former mayor Walters.
"He didn't feel there was support. He decided to go a different direction rather than jeopardize his integrity."
With all the turmoil over the boundary change, longtime resident John Obeda questions whether this council term will be any better than the last.
“Although the old council has been pretty much all eliminated, the new council probably isn't that much of an improvement,” he said.
Back near the mega-site, where crews continue to clear trees to make room for heavy industry, some homeowners are preparing to say goodbye to their forever homes.
Elsie Coad "broke down" when she first learned she would have to leave the house she and her husband built together.
"He passed away just before I moved in, so there's a lot of memories here for me," said Coad, whose house sits within the boundary lines, off Edgeware Line.
"I've asked what will happen to my house because I've been taken to stay longer, but they won't let me stay longer."
While politicians say they understand people's concerns about the boundary change, they've also fielded many calls from residents praising the move.
"Remember, this is a game-changer for Central Elgin and St. Thomas and our entire region,” Flack said.
Sloan said he respects those raising the alarm and will work to ensure Central Elgin is given a fair deal. "The bill has passed. It's been given Royal assent," he said.
"As a community now, my efforts (and the negotiator's) will go toward making the best deal possible for Central Elgin."
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press