This land is my land

Trying to build a new home for Canada’s elite commandos sparks a war of its own

This land is my landFrank Meyers lives on Meyers Creek Road. That’s what happens when your family farms the same plot of land for 2½ centuries. They name the street after you. “This is heritage property,” says the 81-year-old, pointing at his freshly plowed fields in Quinte West, Ont. “This is the property that was given to my forefathers when they fought for the British army against the Americans. This land was designated for us.”

Today, the Meyers land is designated for something else: a new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian military’s top-secret special operations squad.

The Department of National Defence issued the press release back in September, announcing that the country’s most elite commandos are moving to CFB Trenton, the same air base that has welcomed home the flag-draped caskets of every Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan. The relocation of JTF 2, including the construction of a secluded, $240-million training facility, is the highlight of a half-billion-dollar base expansion that will funnel wads of federal cash into the local economy. But amid all the excited talk about infrastructure contracts and job creation—not to mention the arrival of hundreds of heavily trained counterterrorism troops—DND neglected to mention one minor detail. When the special forces move into the neighbourhood, the neighbours will be forced to move out. Whether they want to or not.

The military plans to build the unit’s new stomping grounds on 990 acres of private property located north of CFB Trenton. Federal bureaucrats have spent the past two years trying to convince the owners, 12 in all, to sell. Some have agreed. Some are holding out for a better offer. And some—Frank Meyers included—just want to be left alone. Unfortunately, when the state sets its sights on a plot of land, the owner is left with only two real choices: sell now, or be expropriated later. Staying is not an option. “If they don’t need you, they get rid of you,” Meyers says.

Officially, the Forces have not threatened to toss anyone off his land. Expropriation—a legal power that allows the government to purchase any property it pleases, for fair market value—is always a last resort, and the Department of Public Works says it remains committed to negotiating a “fair” and “mutually acceptable” deal with each owner. But that willingness to bargain won’t last forever. A briefing note sent to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and obtained by Maclean’s under the Access to Information Act, confirms that “expropriation, as a tool available to the government, is being examined.”

“I lose sleep every night about it,” says Phil Jordan, whose 69 acres border the base. “Our world has been crushed. Somebody somewhere has decided they want to move JTF 2, but did they ever take into consideration what that was going to do to other people? They drew a red line around these pieces of property, and ever since then everybody in there has been screwed.”

For Jordan, speaking out is almost as frightening as the thought of losing his home. In this town—where the military is both a source of pride and a source of paycheques—he knows that many residents won’t exactly sympathize with his situation. “Every time a soldier comes home in a casket, the hearse drives right by my house,” says Jordan’s wife, Kristy Chard. “I see it, and I bawl.” But now, she says, “people might start looking at us and say: ‘You’re holding up progress.’ Well, guess what? The government is taking food off my table. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”

The government has been looking to expand CFB Trenton since 2006, when a campaigning Stephen Harper first promised to bring an airborne battalion to the region. By 2007, rumours began to circulate that Joint Task Force 2—the Canadian equivalent of America’s legendary Delta Force—would be moving to the region instead. (The unit’s current home at Dwyer Hill, on the outskirts of Ottawa, is barely 200 acres, and as one general famously told a Senate committee, the site is “bursting at the seams.”)

In the military’s eyes, Trenton is the obvious alternative. Located halfway between Ottawa and Toronto, the base provides immediate access to airlift capabilities—and a town anxious to roll out the welcome mat. Last fall, when DND finally verified the gossip, local officials lined up to shake each other’s hands and boast about the economic spinoffs. Rick Norlock, the local Conservative MP, called it “wonderful news for the people of Quinte West and surrounding area.”

Except, of course, those who live in the immediate surrounding area. “We’re being steamrolled just because of where we are,” says Jordan, sitting at his kitchen table with a Tim Hortons coffee. “Be afraid. They can take your house. There is not one person with land who should not be scared.”

The future home of JTF 2 is a sprawling, 990-acre rectangle—the equivalent of 750 football fields—with a dozen lots inside it. For five generations, the largest of those lots (305 acres) was owned by the Sandercocks, a family of cash-crop farmers. (Like the Meyers clan, they worked these fields for so long that the street sign bears their surname.) It was the fall of 2006 when the Department of Public Works phoned Jim and Janet Sandercock for the first time. “It was devastating for us,” Janet says now. “Devastating.”

Yet, as heartbreaking as it was, the Sandercocks soon realized there was nothing they could do to prevent the inevitable. In March 2007, their neighbour across the street became the first of the 12 to accept the government’s offer (according to the Public Accounts of Canada, she signed away her house and five acres for $326,632). Seven months later, another neighbour agreed to sell his 10 acres, and everything on it, for $481,850. With heavy hearts, the Sandercocks reluctantly agreed to follow suit. “You have to look at the big picture and make a sensible decision,” Jim says. “I don’t care how much money you’ve got, you can’t fight the government.”

Rather than risk expropriation, the Sandercocks spent months negotiating a $2.75-million deal that ensured their farming operation would be moved to nearby parcels of land. Ottawa paid a smidgen more than market value for the land (approximately $3,000 per acre) while dishing out nearly double that to cover a long list of expenses, from relocating grain bins to rebuilding barns. Uprooting their entire lives was a gruelling process—“A lot of tears,” Janet says—but they know it was the smart decision. “We were in their way,” she says. “The bottom line is they’re going to take it, so you have to co-operate.”

Apart from the obvious inconvenience, the owners who don’t want to co-operate are at odds over one thing: selling price. The government hired a third-party firm to assess each property, but as that memo to the minister made clear, most owners “expressed dissatisfaction with the appraised values.” Among the dissatisfied is Leon Collins, who owns 116 acres near the east end of the rectangle. The 71-year-old says his lot was appraised for less than $3,000 an acre, despite the fact that similar properties in the area have recently sold for up to $1,800 more. “The appraisal was worth peanuts,” he says. “I told [the government representative] I’d buy all the land in the county of Hastings for that price. That’s a steal.” Public Works mailed Collins a second offer in the fall. He won’t reveal the specific dollar figure, except to say he threw the letter in the garbage.

Another owner, who spoke to Maclean’s on the condition that his name not be printed, also thinks the feds are lowballing him. “There is no way that I’m going to sell at the price they offered, so what can I do?” he says. “They’re the government, and the government has a lot more power than we do.”

He is right. According to Canada’s expropriation laws, Ottawa is under no obligation to pay anything more than fair market value. But because the feds always prefer to negotiate a settlement rather than dictate one, Treasury Board guidelines do give bureaucrats the leeway to offer up to 15 per cent above the appraised amount, as well as out-of-pocket expenses such as moving costs, legal fees and cable installation. In the end, though, the government just can’t show up with a blank cheque. It is taxpayer money, after all.

Phil Jordan understands that. He knows he didn’t “win the lottery” when the military chose his land for JTF 2. But he is equally convinced that the appraised value ($445,000 for his house and the 69 acres) doesn’t reflect the true value. The garage alone—two stories, with an upstairs studio for his band—is irreplaceable, he says, as is the suite he built for his ailing mother. “They think this is just a house and we can just buy another one down the road,” says Jordan, a welder by trade. “But if we took their offer we’d have to buy a house on a one-acre lot that isn’t nearly as luxurious. We’d definitely be put in hardship, there is no doubt about it.”

“What’s the number one rule of real estate?” his wife adds. “Location, location, location. I’ve got it, I’m happy with it, and I want to stay here.”

How much longer they can stay here is the uncomfortable question nobody wants to answer. At last count, the government has acquired five of the 12 properties (380 acres) but because the workings of JTF 2 are shrouded in such secrecy, DND will not say when construction is expected to begin or when the troops will arrive. When asked if holdout owners will be expropriated, the military would only say it “is committed to following the government of Canada rules and regulations regarding land acquisitions in order to provide the Canadian Forces with the land and infrastructure needed to support operational requirements.”

A spokesman for Public Works confirmed that the department still wants all 990 acres—and that discussions can’t drag on forever. “The reality of the situation is our client, DND, needs the land for a specific cause, and to have this negotiation just go on indefinitely would obviously not benefit anybody,” Jeremy Link says. Does that mean expropriation is inevitable? “We are still in discussions with the landowners. In terms of dates and possible actions, we haven’t received any further directives from DND.”

Rick Norlock, the MP who was so anxious to trumpet JTF 2’s arrival, would not speak to Maclean’s. His spokesman, Thomas Rittwage, says although his boss has forwarded some of the owners’ concerns to the minister of public works, he cannot interfere with the negotiations. Is Norlock troubled by the fact that some of his constituents are being forced from their homes? “You have to weigh the concerns of the best interests of the broader community,” Rittwage says. “The impact economically on the city of Quinte West is so huge that it would be very disappointing if this fell through. So it’s weighing those things against one another and being open and talking with our constituents.”

Frank Meyers is finished talking. Sitting behind the wheel of his GMC pickup truck, dressed in blue jeans and brown workboots, he vows to never sign away what his forefathers handed down—no matter the price. “I can’t,” he says. “It’s family land. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ll just have to wait until that day comes.”

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