Farmer tears up industrial land mega-buy, fears farm toll

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St. Thomas’ industrial dreams could prove a nightmare for the surrounding farming community, says a farmer.

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City Hall has amassed an 800-acre (320-hectare) parcel of land for industrial use, hoping to woo an automotive electric vehicle battery maker looking to set up shop in Ontario.

But it will see some of the best farmland in Ontario, and the cash crops now planted there, will be paved over, said Tom Martin, a farmer who lives on Edgeware Line near the site. It points to large tracts of land near Highway 401 in Southwold Township, near where Amazon is building a fulfillment center, that is not farmland and would be ideal for industry.

“Why are we taking quality farmland when there is land nearby that has been abandoned by farmers and is not quality land?” said Martin.

The city of St. Thomas and its economic development office moved in secret to acquire the land, forcing sellers to sign nondisclosure agreements so they couldn’t discuss the purchase now, and some are felt compelled to sell and were threatened with expropriation of their property, he said.

“It was squishy, ​​it was sneaky,” he said. “They took farmland in secret. Why haven’t we debated or discussed this? »

Municipalities and their economic development agencies often have to acquire land on the sly, so as not to inflate land values ​​when they spend taxpayers’ money, said Sean Dyke, chief executive of the economic development agency. of St. Thomas.

“I understand the concern, but it’s the natural direction for a city to grow,” he said.

This land is immediately adjacent to the St. Thomas Industrial Park, making it a natural fit, Dyke said.

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“Wherever we are now, where we work, it was something else,” he said. “We need agricultural land and food, but we also need to adapt to the growth of our community.

As for the size of the land package, it seems to be what is needed as industrial demand soars across Ontario. Dyke points to Toyota’s Woodstock plant which spans 1,000 acres (400 hectares). “We try to have the right place for investments. We had inquiries for 1,000 acres,” he said. “It could be an investment that is good for the whole region.”

The land is near the city, mainly west of Highbury Avenue, north of the Edgeware line, south of the Ron McNeil line and west of Yarmouth Center Road. There is a large portion, about 300 acres (120 hectares), south of Edgeware Line.

Earlier this year, Stellantis and South Korean battery maker LG Energy Solution announced they would build Canada’s first large-scale electric vehicle battery plant in Windsor, a $5 billion investment that will employ approximately 2 500 people and expected to be in full production by 2025. The square foot (400,000 square meter) factory will be located on over 200 acres (80 hectares) of land.

In April, Ontario Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli said the provincial government was in talks with several electric vehicle battery manufacturers to open another plant in that province, and it was reported that Ford of Canada was planning to build an electric vehicle battery factory here with an industry. partner.

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Martin owns a 400-acre (100-hectare) farm where his family has lived since the 1950s. He believes the region is increasingly concerned about the loss of farmland as well as the impact that industrial development major will have on property values.

Much of the purchased land is in Central Elgin and Martin asked how St. Thomas could buy land from Central Elgin for its own industrial use.

St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston said he would work with Central Elgin to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal, but said annexation is also an option if necessary.

“We’re working on a deal right now and that’s about all I can say,” Preston said.

Central Elgin officials, including Mayor Sally Martyn, declined to comment, saying the Ontario government had ordered Preston to be the spokesperson on the matter.

“It can be a partnership or an annexation, or all of those things. We will find a way that works,” Preston said.

While Preston was sensitive to concerns from farmers in the area about the loss of farmland, he said he could only buy land adjacent to his community.

“I can only look at the borders that are attached to Saint-Thomas. I am not the mayor of Southwold Township,” Preston said.

“But we think it’s the best place. There will always be an argument about why he should go somewhere else, but this is the right place.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture shared Martin’s concern. According to the 2021 census, Ontario is losing an average of 319 acres of farmland per day. In 2016, the province had 12.6 million acres of farmland; it now has 11.7 million acres.

“We understand that the province must adapt to growth. All the OFA is saying is build in the right places, using long-term strategies,” said federation spokesman Tyler Brooks.

“If they sell farmland, it will affect our ability to supply the food chain. We will depend on other countries.

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