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Farm to gravel pit application part of a worrisome trend, opponents say

Residents opposed to a plan to allow a gravel extraction and concrete recycling on a farm property in Thames Centre say similar gravel operations in the area have left prime farmland in no condition to grow future crops.

Middlesex County staff recommend plan to turn farm over to recycling, aggregate extraction

JoAnn Barnard, left, and Lucy Johnston are opposed to a plan to allow aggregate extraction at a farm on Purple Hill Road but on Tuesday Middlesex County voted in favour of an amendment that will allow the gravel extraction to go ahead. (Andrew Lupton/CBC )

Residents opposed to a plan that would allow a gravel pit on a farm in Thames Centre say similar gravel operations in the area have left prime farmland in no condition to grow future crops. 

Property owner Newlife Recycling has applied for an amendment to the Thames Centre official plan to allow gravel extraction and concreate recycling at the 21-hectare (52-acre) farm located at 20317 Purple Hill Rd., between Dundas Street and Evelyn Drive. 

AAROC Aggregates, part of the John Aarts Group, is the proposed licence-holder for the site. The extraction is planned for 15 hectares of the property and slated to continue for a maximum of 15 years. 

Country planning staff are supporting the amendment but a group of residents in the farming community located east of London's airport plan to speak against it at today's Middlesex County council meeting. Thames Centre council approved a motion last spring to re-zone the property from "agricultural" to "extractive industrial."

Opponents say gravel extraction on a property that has operated for decades as a farm will mean increased traffic, dust and possible ground water problems. 

Opponents are also concerned about how a gravel operation will affect the Clipperton Cemetery, a small community cemetery located close to the proposed extraction site that dates back to 1840. 

Lucy Johnston is a longtime resident of the area. Her parents are buried in the cemetery, along with dozens of other longtime residents who lived on farms along Purple Hill Road. 

Johnston is worried a gravel operation at the property known locally as the Donelley farm will mean a steady parade of gravel trucks.

"We've got to make sure people are safe and secure when they come to bury their family members and that the heritage of the cemetery is being taken into consideration," she said. 

Johnston says other farms in the area, including a property direclty across the road from the cemetery, have become gravel operations in recent years. She says this often limits their use for farming after the gravel is removed.

"For a lot of the farms, they're not being returned to the type of farming that they were previously," she said. "[They are] not being able to crop and generate business like they used to."

A farmer herself, Johnston considered buying a 90-acre agricultural property in the area after gravel extraction wrapped up.  She said the aggregate removal left the property stripped of its topsoil and unsuitable for farming. 

After visting the property, she opted not to buy it.

"It was very clear the fill they used where the extraction happened was not clean fill," she said. "We shouldn't have to return to a pit that's been generating money for that industry, and have to bring in clean fill ourselves." 

A gravel extraction and concrete recycling operation is proposed for this farm on Purple Hill Road in Thames Centre, north of Dundas Street. A group of neighbours opposed to the plan say too many local farms are turning over to gravel extraction, limiting the properties' ability to support crops in the future. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

But Thames Centre Deputy Mayor Kelly Elliott said that as a licence-holder, AAROC has to follow strict rules set out by the province. 

"Residents are correct in the fact that once you remove the topsoil away, it will never be the same farm as it was before," she said. "However, rehabilitation is a key portion of the ability for any company to be able to obtain their aggregate licence."

At the same time, Elliott says she understands the concerns of neighbours who feel too much farm land is being lost to gravel extraction. 

"I do believe that more priority does need to be given to class A prime agricultural land when it comes to aggregate extraction," she said. "My Grandpa always bragged that in southwestern Ontario, we have the best farmland in all of Canada, and we need to do a better job protecting it."

Company vows to mitigate concerns

A report to council prepared by landscape architect Harrington McAvan for AAROC lays out the company's plans to operate the property during extraction, and rehabilitate it afterward. 

Because the planned extraction goes below the water table, a portion of the site will be left as a pond after the gravel is removed.

In its report, the company writes the property will be "progressively rehabilitated to a natural environment after use in pond areas and slopes adjacent to the pond, with rehabilitation to agricultural uses in the perimeter areas."

The report also says: "The agricultural lands around the perimeter of the pond area shall be returned to soil capabilities that are the same as the present capabilities."

The company also plans to build berms around the property perimeter to limit noise. Those berms will also be used to store topsoil for replacement after extraction wraps up. 

The company's submission also points to a hydrogeology report and a letter from the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority that voices no concerns about the planned gravel operation. To help with truck traffic, the company plans to pay to pave the gravel road between the entrance to the property and Dundas Street (Highway 2).

The company estimates truck traffic will be about 35 trucks per working day, or about 3.5 per hour over a typical operating season, which will run from April to December, six days a week.

Still, residents opposed to the plan have enlisted three of their own speakers for the meeting, including an air quality specialist, a water specialist and the president of the cemetery board. 

The amendment to the community plan is on the agenda for today's meeting of Middlesex County council, scheduled to start at 1 p.m.  

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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