Doug Ford encouraged Waterloo Region to expropriate farmland for industry

By Alan S. Hale April 15, 2024
Aerial photograph of a farm.

The province is behind a controversial proposal to assemble 770 acres of farmland near Wilmot Township. (Fight For Farmland)

Premier Doug Ford acknowledged that the province is behind a controversial proposal by Waterloo Region to assemble 770 acres of farmland near Wilmot Township for future industrial and economic development.

In March, farmers along Highway 8 just outside of Kitchener were offered compensation for their properties — and told that if they don’t accept by March 20, their land will be expropriated.

At a press conference in Waterloo last Thursday, Ford said the province told Waterloo Region to locate lands that could be set aside for major projects.

“I have to be fully transparent — what we’re doing across the province, we’re asking municipalities and regions to assemble land,” said Ford.

“We sent some forms out — I think it was about a year ago — saying, ‘if you want to assemble the land, we’ll be there for you and if you don’t, I understand that.’”

Ford confirmed there is currently no proponent “waiting to jump in” and develop the lands outside Kitchener, but the government believes having lands ready for potential industrial projects would help attract more big projects like the Volkswagen battery plant being built outside St. Thomas.

“We’re pretty confident companies are going to come and put a facility there,” Ford said of the Kitchener parcels. “A lot of smaller towns, like Wilmot, need money. What better way than to clear some land and create development?”

Mayor straddles a tightrope

However, the move to pressure farmers into selling has been roiling the local community for weeks, and the Township of Wilmot is not picking sides.

Wilmot Mayor Natasha Salonen issued a statement last Wednesday, stating that the negotiations between the region and farmers “like all real estate transactions, take place one-on-one.”

“The township is not, and should not, be involved directly in those discussions and subsequent transactions,” said Salonen, who also acknowledged the “considerable concern about the absence of information available in the public domain” that the Region of Waterloo’s tight-lipped approach to the process has caused.

“As your government representatives at the local level, we continue to advocate on behalf of landowners, ensuring that the process is fair and equitable.”

The local community is divided on the idea of turning farmland over to industrial use.

Earlier this month, a coalition of local chambers of commerce known as the Business and Economic Support Team of Waterloo Region (BESTWR) published an open letter arguing that “preparing shovel-ready land is critical and will be pivotal to the ongoing success of our future economy.”

“We are frequently turning away investment because we do not have large and shovel-ready parcels of land. We cannot as a community continue to reject opportunities for stable, secure and well-paying jobs,” said Greater KW Chamber of Commerce CEO Ian McLean on behalf of BESTWR.

Meanwhile, local residents, environmental groups and affected farmers have been pushing back at well-attended public meetings, by presenting to the regional council and by writing open letters of their own.

“This decision feels like a betrayal of farmers,” wrote members of Faith Climate Justice Waterloo Region. “Whether or not the province is obliging the region to take this action — forcing farmers to sell their land and homes for unreasonably low offers on absurdly short timelines — it’s clear we all need to speak out.”

Pressed about the effort to expropriate farmland, Ford said that “doesn’t sit well with me.”

“I’m all for assembling land across the province, but I don’t know. Personally, I think it should have been handled a little differently, with a real estate company. It really bothered me when I heard that,” said the premier, who stressed the government wants “willing participants” in its push to prepare shovel-ready lands.

Asked if he supports using farmland for industrial purposes, Ford said “That’s going to be up to the municipalities to decide.”