Advocates filed 21 requests for information about Wilmot farmland deal. The region denied nearly all of them | CBC News

A group of people concerned about plans by the Region of Waterloo to buy farmland in Wilmot Township say they’re being denied information about the project.

The group called Fight for Farmland says it filed 21 freedom of information requests with the regional municipality. Of those, 18 “were denied entirely” while three came back as having “no record” or information, the group said.

“The region’s unusual denial of these requests raises serious concerns about the transparency and legality of their actions,” the group said in an emailed statement sent to CBC News.

“Is the region withholding this information because critical steps in the land acquisition process have not been taken? Why are they keeping constituents and citizens in the dark?”

A freedom of information request is when an individual or group requests access to government-held information. The Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act says the purpose of the law is to make information available that should be public. 

In some cases, a municipality can refuse to disclose a record. That could include if the request:

  • Contains a draft of a bylaw.
  • Reveals discussions held during an in-camera meeting of council.
  • If disclosure would reveal advice or recommendations of an officer or employee.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Region of Waterloo told CBC News conversations with landowners “remain confidential, which is common practice in professional real estate negotiations.”

“We remain committed to sharing more information as we are able and the project progresses. Information regarding the importance of assembling shovel-ready land and all available project details are available on our website,” the statement said.

Landowners asked to sell properties

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 311 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 have been told their land would be expropriated.

The region has said it needs the land for future industrial projects, but has not provided specific details.

The plan has been praised by some local business leaders but criticized by some of the landowners, their supporters and politicians including Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles. Two Wilmot Township councillors have called on the region to be more transparent about their plans.

WATCH | This Wilmot farmer could lose almost a third of his property to land expropriation:

This Wilmot farmer could lose almost a third of his property to land expropriation

The region’s controversial plan to buy farmland in Wilmot Township is raising concerns for farmers who will be directly impacted by potential land expropriation. Adam van Bergeijk of Mountainoak Farm says he could lose almost a third of his dairy farm, which is currently home to 600 cows. He is among six landowners and many more advocates who are calling for the lands not to be expropriated by the regional government. The Region of Waterloo has said the land is needed for future industrial use.

Information ‘should already be public,’ group says

The group Fight For Farmland says it believes the information it was asking for “should already be public knowledge.” They said the requests included:

  • Request for details if other sites were considered for the industrial project.
  • Information about discussions around the project’s compliance with the region’s official plan and commitment to protect farmland.
  • A copy of any non-disclosure agreements or any clarification “on the claim that no NDA existed and that discussions were held in in-camera meetings protected by the Municipal Act.”
  • Information on the capacity and impact on local wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Studies on potential impacts to local drinking water resources.
  • Details on transportation infrastructure planning and studies.
  • Any cost estimates for upgrades to roads, water and wastewater treatment, rail improvements and other infrastructure in relation to the future industrial project.

Alfred Lowrick, spokesperson for the Fight For Farmland group, said in the media release that it is “very concerning” not to get any response from the region.

“We have to wonder what the region is hiding and if they have even done the needed investigations, studies, and research for this massive proposal that will have such huge impacts,” he said in the release.

Kevin Thomason, vice-chair of the Grand River Environmental Network, said he wants to see the region be more transparent about the plans for the land and any studies that have been done looking at the future of the Wilmot farmland.

“It certainly isn’t in the best public interest to see so much secrecy and important information such as studies and research that has been paid for with tax dollars withheld from the public,” Thomason said in the release.

The group says it will appeal the denied freedom of information requests to the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner and will ask the Ontario ombudsman to investigate how many in-camera meetings have been held on the issue.

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