Region needs to be more transparent about reasons for land acquisition, 2 Wilmot councillors say

Wilmot Township Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson (left), Ward 3 Coun. Harvir Sidhu (right) and Wilmot's landowner spokesperson Alfred Lowrick (middle) following Wednesday morning's town hall.  (Karis Mapp/CBC - image credit)
Wilmot Township Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson (left), Ward 3 Coun. Harvir Sidhu (right) and Wilmot's landowner spokesperson Alfred Lowrick (middle) following Wednesday morning's town hall. (Karis Mapp/CBC - image credit)

Two Wilmot councillors are calling on the Region of Waterloo to be more transparent about plans to buy farmland in the township.

Ward 3 Coun. Harvir Sidhu and Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson held a town hall meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the ongoing farmland controversy.

"Over the past few months, we've heard from our community loud and clear. Wilmot residents are angry. They're angry that the farmers and landowners have not been treated fairly or treated with respect during this ongoing land acquisition. It honestly just comes down to respect, or lack thereof," Sidhu said.

Back in March, 12 landowners of six farmland properties and six residential properties were told the Region of Waterloo plans to purchase their land. In total, the region is pursuing 770 acres (roughly 312 hectares) of land in Wilmot Township near the intersection of Nafziger Road and Bleams Road, south of New Hamburg.

If the landowners refuse to sell, they were told their land would be expropriated. The region has said it needs the land for future industrial projects, but has not provided specifics.

One landowner has decided to sell, with two other sales pending. This would make up less than one per cent of the sought 770 acres.

Wilmot Township Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson speaks to the crowd at Wednesday morning's town hall.
Wilmot Township Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson speaks to the crowd at Wednesday morning's town hall.

Wilmot Township Ward 2 Coun. Kris Wilkinson speaks to the crowd at Wednesday morning's town hall. (Karis Mapp/CBC)

"I stand before you today and I challenged the Region of Waterloo to release the technical details with full transparency and tell her residents why this site  is being assembled," Sidhu said.

"The farmers are hard working individuals. They bring a lot to our small rural community and honestly, enough is enough. We have two asks. Release the technical details and come and talk to us," Wilkinson said.

Wilmot Mayor Natasha Salonen was not part of the event on Wednesday, but in a statement sent to CBC News, said she agreed with the concerns raised by the councillors.

"It's no secret that our residents have many outstanding questions about the Region's land assembly in Wilmot Township. I echo the concerns that Coun. Sidhu and Coun. Wilkinson have raised about the process," Salonen's statement said.

"I'm continuing to work behind the scenes to advocate that the landowners are respected during the process and will continue to advocate for the Region to provide information to the general public."

Landowners had the opportunity to share concerns and pose questions to the two councillors present at the town hall.
Landowners had the opportunity to share concerns and pose questions to the two councillors present at the town hall.

Landowners had the opportunity to share concerns and pose questions to the two councillors present at the town hall. (Karis Mapp/CBC)

Region to share more information 'as the project progresses'

CBC News reached out to the Region of Waterloo for comment and received an emailed statement that reiterated the "land assembly effort is a generational project for the economic future of our region."

During a recent state of the region address, regional Chair Karen Redman said this community is expected to grow to one million people by 2050.

"As this land assembly project continues, the region is in continued conversation with landowners, which remains confidential and is common practice in professional real estate negotiations," the region's statement sent Wednesday said. "We are committed to sharing more information as the project progresses."

When affected landowners at Wednesday's town hall were asked about their communication with the region, they said they haven't heard anything.

"Nothing. Not even our lawyers," said Adam Van Bergeijk, past-president of Moutainoak Cheese.

Landowner spokesperson Alfred Lowrick says 21 freedom of information requests were submitted to learn more about the meetings the region has been having behind closed doors and they're waiting on the results of those requests.

'We have no say,' councillor says

It's now approaching 14 weeks since the landowners first received expropriation notices.

Wilkinson said that while council members are privy to certain details, the decision making is out of their hands.

"It's not that we don't necessarily know what's going on, it's that the details that we have been told, have been issued to us in a closed session. Out of respect for the Municipal Act and our job, we have to respect that or face the consequences," he said.

"A lot of details and a lot of pieces that we're aware of, we have no say, no discussion around it."

Meanwhile, Sidhu says the issue has been on his mind a lot recently, especially after talking to the people he represents.

"Earlier this month, I was actually hospitalized for 10 days. So I had a lot of time to sit there and soul search. Really understand and come to terms of what I'm doing as a councillor," he said.

"I was trusting the process. We gave [the region] their fair share. We were following their rules and ultimately, I don't see anything changing. That's when I made the decision that now is the time to come out and speak out."

Roughly 50 landowners attended Wednesday morning's town hall on a parcel of affected land.
Roughly 50 landowners attended Wednesday morning's town hall on a parcel of affected land.

Roughly 50 landowners attended Wednesday morning's town hall on a parcel of affected land. (Karis Mapp/CBC)

Another pair of landowner town halls are tentatively scheduled for June 20 and June 27 at the Wilmot Recreation Complex.

"That would be a great opportunity for the region to come out and essentially listen to the farmers," Sidhu said.

"I think if there is a more open and fair process, more people would be understanding and there wouldn't be such secrecy around things."