Cost recovery is key as Woolwich continues vetting on-farm businesses
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Cost recovery is key as Woolwich continues vetting on-farm businesses

Concerned about recovering costs of the program, Woolwich is nonetheless pressing ahead with an effort to bring problematic on-farm business into legal compliance.

Township planning staff began contacting farm operators two years ago, seeking out non-compliant operations and trying to bring them back into conformity with zoning bylaws and the building code.

The process began in the north end of the township and is moving south, manager of planning Jeremy Vink told councillors meeting Monday night.

The agricultural enforcement program has now covered about a third of the township. At the current pace, he expects it would take another six years to get to all the operations.

He recommended turning to an outside consultant to take over the program, which has proven to be time-consuming for staff, but councillors put off a decision pending more information about cost-recovery options.

While planning department fees typically cover the cost involved in each incident of non-compliance, that’s not always the case, said Vink.

Coun. Scott McMillan pushed to ensure costs be covered by the non-compliant farm operations themselves rather than drawing from general tax revenues. He also favoured keeping the process in-house.

“I’d rather go slow and manage staff time rather than outsource,” he said. “I would rather push out the timeframe.”

Vink said fees could be adjusted to cover costs, however the remaining work is carried out. The bigger stumbling block, he noted, has been the cost of bringing buildings into compliance, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The township allows farm owners to operate businesses on their properties as long as the ventures are secondary to the agricultural operation and the operation conforms to all the legal obligations of any other business. A number of legal issues have been identified over the years, including zoning issues, with Vink noting the largest issue has been building code compliance: many of the structures housing the businesses have been found noncompliant with the likes of electrical, safety and fire-suppression issues.

The costs have seen some farm owners balk. The township has been working with them, but some cases may have to be referred to bylaw enforcement and subsequent legal action.

Even when operators are cooperative, it’s a time-consuming exercise, he stressed. The target is to bring non-conforming business into legal standing in six months, though some take longer. Some 50 on-farm businesses have been legalized, with others still in the works.

“No solution is easy, and no solution is fast.”

Vink said he expects there will be 150 to 200 on-farm businesses with which to deal.

“There are a large number of uses that need to and can be brought into compliance, and a large number of uses that are not compliant and may not be able to be brought into compliance or may need additional planning and building approvals. Each case is unique and takes time to review. There is a significant amount of staff follow up to get the compliance, regardless of how ‘simple’ things may be,” he said in his report.

Unable to attend the meeting, Coun. Patrick Merlihan sent comments calling for the township to fast-track the process.

Coun. Murray Martin, on the other hand, called for leniency, noting he has “a soft spot in my heart” for the farmers looking to supplement their incomes.

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