Public pressure halts city’s bid for Welland farm

Nationwide public outcry is being credited for helping save City of Welland farmer Marsha Rempel from being forced to sell her 67-acre farm for industrial development.

On March 2, city councillors voted 8-3 to put the brakes on an expropriation process which had been initiated in July 2020, and taken another step forward on Dec. 1, 2020 – both by 7-5 vote counts. (One councillor resigned for unrelated reasons in early 2021.)

Why it matters: Farmland expropriation is a concern as it takes the land out of food production.

Among those switching their votes was Mayor Frank Campion. 

The active cash crop farm, including Rempel’s house and other outbuildings, has been owned by the family for over 150 years.

Speaking to Farmtario about the March 2 vote, Rempel said she now knows what it feels like “to have the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders.” Sleeping through the night is now, once again, possible – thanks to no longer constantly worrying about where she would move to if forced off the farm.

Rempel began opposing the expropriation attempt immediately last summer and was soon joined by neighbourhood supporters from the Cook’s Mills community organization. Two petitions were launched during that time, with opposition growing from within Welland and surrounding communities.

More recently, her story garnered Ontario-wide and even Canada-wide attention – including, on Feb. 1, a story on CBC Radio and even a biting make-believe article highlighting Welland’s industrial “brownfields” in the satirical publication The Beaverton.

Speaking to Farmtario, Rempel recalled returning home late on Feb. 2 after making a delegation to the council to find a deluge of messages on her answering machine. Supporters from as far away as British Columbia had somehow found her phone number.

In all over that single 24-hour period, including responses to phone and Facebook of the Cook’s Mills group and other key supporters, 750 people expressed their support for Rempel’s cause. The groundswell was, she said, “a lot bigger than anybody, including me, thought it would ever be.”

The fallout from the expropriation bid includes in the coming weeks possible motions brought forward requesting a return of the farm to agricultural zoning (it had been rezoned industrial under Welland’s most recent Official Plan) and preventing expropriation of the 67 acres as long as it remains under Marsha Rempel’s ownership. The family has already endured expropriations for two separate railways during its 150 years of ownership.

“What it looks like now is that (the City) will try to buy land from the (St. Lawrence) Seaway along the new canal,” said Rempel. She’s opposed to this. The vast majority of feedback she and her supporters received urged councillors to instead seek funding to clean up some of Welland’s numerous contaminated brownfields and once again make them suitable for industrial development.

But the main victory – stopping expropriation – is hers. And she hopes her story can serve as an inspiration to others – anyone facing the loss of their land to development, but particularly farmers – living on the edge of urban centres.

“There were people who said, ‘you can’t fight City Hall’,” she said. “But there is such a thing as beating the odds. (And) if you just hand it to them, you’re going to spend the rest of your life wondering” what would have happened if you had fought back instead.