Land at centre of mega-quarry fight sold

ORONTO – The farmland at the centre of a heated fight, which pitted local farmers and environmentalists against a company backed by a $25-billion Boston hedge fund, has been sold.

Local farmers and citizens’ groups, who fought for years to block a proposed mega-quarry by Highland Companies, are welcoming the new owners.

Bonnefield Financial – a Canadian farmland investment company -announced this week it had bought more than 2,600 hectares of land from Highland Companies.

Bonnefield said the Class 1 farmland would continue to be used for farming.

“Here we have Canadian investors, supporting Canadian farmers to ensure that one of our most precious resources – farmland – continues to be used for farming,” said Bonnefield president Tom Eisenhauer in a press release.  “That’s the core of Bonnefield’s mission: farmland for farming. We look forward to working with local farmers who will operate this land on a long-term basis and to ensure that it is preserved and enhanced for farming use.”

Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT), Conserve Our Rural Environment (CORE) and Citizens’ Alliance United for a Sustainable Environment (CAUSE) welcomed the news of the sale.

“We’re delighted that a Canadian investment firm sees the value in farming,” said NDACT’s chair, Carl Cosack.

“It seems we share the same interests: keeping the province’s precious farmland productive for all Ontarians.  This is a great outcome after seven intense years of public engagement,” he said.

NDACT works to protect resources in North Dufferin County and across Ontario, including farmland and the watersheds. Through its campaign “Food & Water First,” the group is working to see legislation passed at Queen’s Park that would protect Class 1 farmland from all non-farming development. (Class 1 farmland is the highest quality.)

Bonnefield representatives have stated publicly that the farmland will be used for farming – but it’s a sentiment members of the community have heard before.

Cosack told Global News the question for local farmers is not who owns the land, but rather what are they doing with it.

“If 100 years from now we decide we don’t need to grow food…that’s fine,” said Cosack. But, he said, legislation needs to be put in place to protect the land, because if in 100 years “you still need farmland to grow food, you can’t just create it.”

The farmland at the centre of the years-long battle in Melancthon Township, located approximately 100km northwest of Toronto, falls within the region known as Hills of Headwaters, currently home to some of Canada’s richest soil. The countryside attracts hundreds of tourists and cottagers every year.

In 2006, John Lowndes purchased almost 3,250 hectares of land for Highland Companies, telling local farmers of his plan to start a large co-operative potato farm. Local residents eventually grew suspicious of Highland’s plan for the land.

In 2009 it became public that Highland Companies had acquired the land to build a quarry that would stretch over 930 hectares and plunge deeper than Niagara Falls.

Because the quarry would fall below the water table, 600 million litres of water would be pumped out of the quarry every day, and thousands of 40-tonne trucks would travel on local roads every day, 24 hours a day.

After Highland’s plan went public, what followed was years of protests from local residents and groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, Wellington Water Watchers and the Canadian Chefs’ Congress.

In September 2011, after numerous protests and petitions, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment John Wilkinson ordered Highland Companies to undertake a comprehensive environmental assessment of the quarry proposal.

Thousands of letters of objection were sent to Linda Jeffrey, the province’s Minister of Natural Resources, questioning the science of Highland’s initial application.

Meanwhile, the province awaited notification from Highland Companies whether they would participate in the environmental assessment or abandon the project.

The company withdrew their quarry proposal last November.

“While we believe that the quarry would have brought significant economic benefit to Melancthon Township and served Ontario’s well-documented need for aggregate, we acknowledge that the application does not have sufficient support from the community and government to justify proceeding with the approval process,” said John Scherer of Highland Companies in a press release.

Highland Companies also announced Lowndes had resigned as company president.

By Heather Loney, Global News

Posted on the Global News website, July 18, 2103

© Shaw Media, 2013