‘Weight of the world’ lifted as City of Welland backs off farmland expropriation

old family photograph An old family photograph taken in 1905 at what was once the Watters Farm in Welland, now owned by Marsha Rempel. Photo taken on March 8, 2021.

Last summer, the ticking lull of a grandfather clock inside of Marsha Rempel’s Welland farmhouse became a tone of foreboding, counting down the remaining seconds of Rempel’s time on her family’s farmland.

 Welland city council had voted last year to send Rempel packing and expropriate the farmland with plans to convert it into an industrial park.

Unbeknownst to her, the property had previously been rezoned as “gateway economic centre” for general industrial use.

Tumultuous months were spent by Rempel, a typically private person, fighting to remain.

News of the story spread across the country. Phone calls poured in, family members and a community group stepped up, signatures were added to a petition and letters arrived at her doorstep.

Asked this past February where she would go, Rempel said she didn’t know. She still has family living in Welland, including her mother, Eleanor, but she now felt unwelcome.

“There are times you just feel sick about it,” she said at the time, thumbing through yellowed black and white photographs and archived documents of the family’s 150-year history on the land.

Finally, on the evening of March 2, the “weight of the world” was lifted from Rempel’s shoulders as the looming threat of expropriation vanished in an 8-3 vote by city council to stop the taking of the property.

Passed down through generations of farmers since 1859, Rempel’s grandparents, Frank and Mary Watters, previously owned the family homestead, known as the Watters Farm. Once home to farm animals, the majority of the then 67-acre property produced oats, wheat, red clover and corn. 

In 1984, four years after Frank died, Mary had grown tired of having responsibility for the property and the deed was transferred to Rempel. Mary later died in 1997.

The farmland is now rented out and planted with cash crops like winter wheat and soy beans, generating some income for Rempel, who is now 57 and retired.

“Basically when I wasn’t in school, I was here,” Rempel said of her childhood. “It was always a happy place.” 

Ward 4 Coun. Bryan Green originally voted in favour of expropriation but eventually had a change of heart and brought forward two failed motions to rescind the move.

“I reflected on it, the significance of it … if this wasn’t the only option, then I didn’t believe the expropriation should proceed,” he said.

Ward 2 Coun. David McLeod, one of three councillors who voted against stopping the expropriation on March 2, has remained unmoved since the beginning.

Though “sensitive to the loss of agricultural land,” McLeod said he had to make a “decision that plans for the future” and citizens deserve an answer for how leadership will continue to grow Welland’s job base.

“I know it wasn’t necessarily a popular decision, I could have easily thrown my vote on the pile and carried on,” he said. 

Ward 6 Coun. Bonnie Fokkens advocated throughout for Rempel, one of her constituents, believing the class three soils on Rempel’s land need to be preserved.

“I’m so proud of Marsha’s courage and the people that supported her,” Fokkens said.

“The only reason people change their minds on expropriation is through public pressure, and I believe that had a big thing to do with it,” she said.

Rempel agrees.

“For quite awhile it really felt like nobody was listening,” she said, adding the turning point came with media exposure.

“I don’t think city hall even expected this much pushback,” Rempel said.

After hearing that Rempel was “dead set against” being forced to sell her property, Mayor Frank Campion, who originally voted in favour of the expropriation process, said he changed his mind, directing city clerk Tara Stephens to find a way to halt the process.

But Campion says the city is “out of stock” and brought forward a motion, since passed, tasking staff with identifying suitable alternatives to Rempel’s property.

Campion said the motion indicates other properties won’t be expropriated.

“We’re not just going to skip down the road and try to expropriate somebody else’s property,” he said.

The past seven months have been draining for Rempel, but having won the fight, she’s now able to forgive and relax, looking out across the field with a hope for the future as spring begins.

Underneath acres of seemingly barren land, winter wheat is pushing its way up and will soon enough be swaying in a summer breeze. The feeling of powerlessness Rempel felt is replaced with a desire to see expropriation laws changed.

“Farmland is not valued the way it should be,” she said.

— With files from The Welland Tribune