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Goodwill slipping away from surplus farmhouse hearing

County council is taking a hard-nosed stance against a request for information from two of its member municipalities ahead of resuming their Ontario Municipal Board hearing late last month. The request, from the solicitors representing West Perth and Perth South, who have taken the county to the OMB to fight a December ruling against allowing property severances of surplus farm houses in the two municipalities, was for electronic data sets that were used to generate previously circulated information. A motion to hand over the information was defeated 6-4, with only the councillors representing West Perth and Perth South voting in favour. The county's director of planning and development, Dave Hanly, brought the request to county council to hear any objections. He admitted that the request was unusual and that it was not clear what the other side intended to do with the information, but said staff was confident in the data that they had put together, and recommended that it be shared as requested. "We are a little guarded of it because it is information we had prepared for our evidence," said Hanly, "… (but) in the spirit of cooperation and courtesy, we feel comfortable releasing the data."A hearing of the OMB into the long-running Perth County battle over surplus farmhouse severances resumed Monday, March 28 in Stratford.A planning guideline of Ontario's provincial government opposes the severance of farmhouses from the farming property upon which they sit. This is based on the belief that, if the farmhouses are separated from the farm, it's more likely they will become occupied by people not connected to farming ' who might be more likely to complain about normal farm practices such as the spreading of manure, housing of animals, or use of pesticides.The County of Perth Official Plan complies with that provincial guideline.Two of the county's four lower-tier municipalities, however, have banded together in an attempt to be able to allow surplus farmhouse severances. The Municipality of West Perth and the Township of Perth South initially argued for the County's Official Plan to go against the Ontario guideline; when that failed due to support for the provincial stance by Perth East and North Perth, the two municipalities sought an Official Plan amendment allowing them not to enforce the ban on severances within their own boundaries.That, too, failed. So the two lower-tier municipalities applied for and received a hearing before the OMB ' which adjudicates all municipal planning disputes on behalf of the provincial government.The OMB hearing actually got underway late last year, but was not completed.The two municipalities contend that, in this part of Ontario, farmland is of sufficient value that the recent trend is for non-resident farmers to buy up large tracts of adjoining land and either demolish the farmhouses or simply let them crumble. West Perth and Perth South representatives argue this is becoming a significant factor in the depopulation of rural Ontario ' which contributes to such things as school closures and the loss of rural organizations and church congregations.Perth County Warden Julie Behrns spoke against supplying the information. She told councillors they would be naive to think the opposing side won't try to pick holes in the county's data. "That's the reason they want it," she said, noting if West Perth and Perth South want the information that badly, their solicitors can file a Freedom of Information request or compile the data themselves.  "I'm all in the spirit of trying to get along, but we are at an OMB (hearing)," she said. Coun. Ian Forrest agreed, and said he failed to see the logic in willingly handing over information that potentially could be used against them.   "When we're spending money for legal counsel, staff to attend (the hearing) …. I fail to see how this helps our particular cause," he added. Forrest also objected to Hanly's position that the information be provided as a gesture of goodwill.   "Six months or a year ago cooperation was the order of the day," he said. "Today, I don't see it."The OMB hearing began in September, and was originally scheduled to last three to four days. West Perth and Perth South want to allow surplus farm houses to be sold as residential properties within their jurisdictions, which they say will help counter a decline in population. The county, meanwhile, wants protect the area's prime agricultural land. After hearing testimony from representatives on both sides of the contentious issue, the hearing was adjourned.  It was set to resume March 28 for five days. Prior to voting, coun. Bill French, a representative of West Perth, took exception to how some councillors described the county's argument at the hearing as "our cause," noting not all councillors around the table share the county's official stance.  "When I hear it's ‘our cause' … it is not all of county council's cause," he said. 

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