Opponents of a suspended proposal to build a controversial glass factory in southwest Stratford say city officials omitted critical details from a public planning report to hide the true purpose of its annexation of nearby farmland.
During a noon-hour rally at the city’s Market Square Monday, musician and activist Loreena McKennitt revealed a planning document she said was kept from the public’s attention last year when Stratford annexed 130 hectares of privately owned land from Perth South that Xinyi had eyed for its controversial $400-million factory.
“We believe the annexation step was taken entirely under false pretenses and that the citizens of Stratford and Perth County deserve an unwinding of this flawed process,” McKennitt, the founder of Wise Communities, said. “Deciding the ultimate use of this prime agricultural land should only have happened through an open and transparent public process and with meaningful public engagement.”
A nearly 100-page report dated Feb. 19, 2020, and marked with the investStratford logo, includes details to justify a request for a Minister’s Zoning Order, the Planning Act tool Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark eventually used last summer to zone the land specifically for glass manufacturing.
Those details were left out of a much smaller report presented to the public during the annexation process, which was completed by local politicians through council votes in Stratford and Perth South earlier in February 2020. That’s the point of contention for McKennitt and her supporters, who argue the public should have been made aware of the city’s plans for the annexed lands when they were the subject of public consultation for about 50 days beginning in December 2019, a timeframe they also argue was far too short.
The document was shared with Wise Communities, a grassroots group established to oppose the glass plant, by Jamie Gibb, a fifth-generation farmer who owns land next to the site of the proposed factory.
“The public consultation on the annexation was lacking at best,” Gibb said.
McKennitt used stronger words.
“I think we were duped,” she said.
Gibb has been raising concerns about the project since he learned about the annexation plans in December 2019. He hired a law firm, Duxbury Law, and planning consultants EBY Growth Management as advisers. The report was provided to Gibb’s lawyer by the city in March 2020.
Although municipal officials reported that Xinyi was among the companies interested in the soon-to-be annexed land at the time, documents obtained by the Beacon Herald in November suggest a deal between Xinyi and the city was much farther along.
Mayor Dan Mathieson requested an MZO from Clark in November 2018. In that request, Mathieson acknowledges an agreement “in principle” with Xinyi to build the factory.
“While the annexation process will include extensive public consultation, the MZO is critical in order for all parties to meet key construction deadlines,” Mathieson wrote at the time. “I would also note that these and other lands to be annexed are a natural extension of an existing industrial area in Stratford which already accommodates a variety of uses, including heavy manufacturing.”
Whether or not the public should have been made aware of the MZO before it was approved by Clark in July is at the heart of an ongoing debate in Stratford. Prior to an announcement about Xinyi’s commitment to Stratford in October, council’s discussion about the project’s specifics had happened exclusively in meetings not open to the public.
Mathieson declined to say on Monday when council voted to move forward with the MZO request and why it was done in camera.
“The Municipal Act allows council to discuss a number of matters in camera. This includes advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose; negotiations carried on by the municipality, and information explicitly supplied in confidence to the municipality,” he said in an email. “The details of those discussions are confidential, as required by the Municipal Act and council code of conduct.”
Mathieson said the report highlighted by McKennitt and Gibb Monday was “submitted as supporting documentation for the MZO submission” following the land annexation. The content of the report and the one provided to the public during the annexation process “is similar,” he added.
Xinyi publicly announced last week it was suspending the project “indefinitely” but has not communicated that to the city directly, Mathieson said Monday.
Meanwhile, Coun. Cody Sebben told councillors at their meeting Monday that he plans to make a motion on March 8 asking the province to repeal the MZO. Sebben was one of three councillors, along with Kathy Vassilakos and Danielle Ingram, who voted against the annexation last year.
“It’s a huge parcel of land and, right now, with the MZO, it’s zoned only for the development of a glass manufacturing facility,” Sebben said. “That means our hands would be tied to develop anything else there. Given (Xinyi’s) announcement I don’t see any reason to leave the MZO there.”
An MZO is a tool providing the minister of municipal affairs and housing the authority to approve zoning without public consultation or opportunities for appeal. It isn’t always controversial, but in a written January 2020 review of the annexation process, Kevin Eby, Gibb’s planning consultant, said it’s important the public understands why it’s being used.
“They need the opportunity to participate in a properly informed manner,” he wrote. “This doesn’t mean they need to be privy to confidential information, but there needs to be a coherent context established for the decisions being made when the information cannot be shared or you risk losing the trust of the public and other public agencies. This was clearly not done in this case.”