The Shoal Lakes Flooded Landowners Association is expanding its membership beyond the farming community as unease over the buyout process increases.
Trucks and cars circled the Woodlands Legion Hall last week, with more than 60 people turning out for the association’s first annual meeting.
“Not a lot has changed — we’re basically sitting here, having the same conversation as last time,” meeting chairman Fred DeLaroque told the crowd.
“We do have buyouts on the table for some people and we have received our per-acre payments … but there are a lot of questions and many issues going forward.”
Last spring, the province launched a voluntary buyout program for producers with inundated land and received more than 70 applications. But some at the meeting pointed to inconsistencies in offers being made to producers.
“All I can say is that if you get an offer, be on your toes,” said Brian McCulley who farms near Grassmere Creek. “I have had an offer made, and I can tell you they are not all the same … some of the offers have different clauses in them.”
Once applicants receive an offer, they have until July 31 to accept it. Appeals can be made to the Crown Land Values Appeal Board.
Although offers are supposed to be based on “fair market value,” McCulley said his offer also included a price based on “farm use value,” which is considerably less.
“They are trying to gain access to your assets for a price far below fair market value,” he said. “And as soon as you think of bringing a lawyer into it, they have 10 lawyers sitting on their thumbs just waiting.”
Some individuals at the meeting had contacted lawyers, and raised the prospect of launching a class-action lawsuit.
“Litigation has to take place in order to get fair settlement, there is no way I can see this happening politically,” said Roy Chartrand, whose family has ranched near St. Laurent for generations.
But not everyone at the meeting agreed, leaving the issue unresolved.
Board member Orval Proctor said the idea had been discussed previously, but it was felt a class-action lawsuit would drag on for years, while working with government would deliver results more swiftly.
DeLaroque echoed that sentiment, adding the process would have likely been “stonewalled” for some time before anyone received compensation.
“I’ve already lost time and money,” replied Chartrand. “The way I see it, I’d rather fight and know I got a fair deal, even if it drags on until the day I die.”
Many farmers at the meeting had already received offers on their land, but said the value assigned to their infrastructure was inadequate.
Questions were also raised about Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ (MAFRI) ability to back out of an offer after the landowner had signed, or if the appeal board awarded a higher value.
“I had hoped these would be the questions MAFRI would be able to answer tonight,” said DeLaroque. “But as you can see, they are not here.”
MAFRI officials had agreed to attend the meeting, but DeLaroque said he received a cancellation call five hours before it was to begin.
But despite confusion and dissatisfaction over the buyout process, flooded homeowners at the meeting expressed interest in participating in a buyout program, as did some outside of the Shoal Lakes watershed.
“I would love to have a buyout offered to me,” said Lisa Wurm. “I couldn’t say what I might be offered, but right now I’ve only been offered flood rehabilitation, and you have to put in $14,000 for every $100,000.”
The association passed a resolution to open membership to all taxpayers in the Shoal Lakes area, suggesting a larger group would be more effective in its lobbying efforts.
“We’ll have to take this back to our members and see what they have to say,” said Garnet Lobb, co-chair of the Southend Shoal Lakes Homeowners Group.
He said some members of his organization may choose membership in both organizations, possibly wish to amalgamate or want to retain a separate organization.
Lakeside MLA Ralph Eichler urged those in attendance to keep pressure on the provincial government, and committed to doing the same.
“I assure you we will be asking tough questions when we get back into session,” he said.
DeLaroque pointed out the loss of farms and businesses around the Shoal Lakes will also negatively impact municipalities by shrinking their already small tax bases.
“This buyout, and the lack of concern being shown about the flooding is wiping out towns — it’s wiping out Teulon, it’s wiping out Inwood, the businesses are suffering,” he said. “At the end of the day — when the farmers are gone from all across this northern area — what is there going to be left?”