By Tom Collins
HURON COUNTY — It’s their land and their trees but they can’t cut them down. So, two Huron County farmers plan to appeal a Normal Farm Practices Protection Board decision preventing them from cutting their own trees. The farmers say this decision could have an impact on other farmers across the province.
“What the government is doing, they’re just rezoning left, right and centre,” said Terry Brake, who works with Laurie Macpherson at Canada Banana, growing exotic fruit in greenhouses in North Huron in Western Ontario. “Farmers are fed up with it. We’ve told farmers you have to stand up for your rights.”
Macpherson bought a 102-acre property in 2010, with 70 acres of woodlot. Macpherson and Brake have since clear-cut about 18 acres and want to clear-cut another 17 to turn the land into agricultural use.
They say they had the blessing of the municipality’s tree expert, the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA), “building people” and a real estate lawyer that looked at the farm before purchasing. All agreed the two would be allowed to cut down the trees, said Brake. Some even signed letters.
However, the tree expert and the MVCA representative left their jobs and their replacements disagreed with the farmers about their woodlot, said Brake. Then the municipality passed a new bylaw in 2013 to prevent the cutting of any woodlot in the county. The bylaw reads “No person by themselves or through any other person shall destroy or injure, or cause or permit to be destroyed or injured, any living tree located in a woodland or woodlot within the County.” The bylaw allows 11 exemptions, such as activities undertaken by a municipality, developers building a subdivision, or companies installing utilities.
“We crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s and then we got screwed,” said Brake. “It’s all documented. We’re confident we’re going to win the case. But we’re going to have to go to the higher court to get it.”
Macpherson and Brake went to the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board in 2011 and lost their case last month. They say they have spent $300,000 on legal fees.
During the hearing, Macpherson and Brake argued that cutting down the trees to use the land for agricultural use is a normal farm practice and should be allowed.
But the County of Huron’s forest conservation officer argued that clear-cutting would be catastrophic to the farm property and neighbouring properties because of topsoil erosion. The board ruled that Macpherson did not show she would improve the lands to deal with erosion.
The board also ruled that since the woodlot was not zoned for agricultural use, they would have to apply for a zoning bylaw amendment and also need permission from the conservation authority.
“The environmental concerns raised by the presence of provincially significant wetlands and areas of natural scientific interest, as well as regulation by the MVCA must be balanced with the needs of the agricultural community and, in the opinion of the board, in these circumstances, the environmental concerns outweigh them,” the board wrote in its Sept. 20 decision.
Brake and Macpherson were shocked. “I thought they were going to allow it,” he said. “It’s a normal practice to clear land.”