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Critics celebrate surprise end of mega quarry north of Toronto

A proposed quarry in Melancthon Township has met with a lot of opposition

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/matthew sherwood The Globe and Mail

While in their vast vegetable fields Wednesday, harvesting the last of their brussel sprout crop, Bill French and his son received a stunning text message: The bid to develop one of the largest rock quarries on the continent, one that would have encircled their family farm for 50 to 100 years, was dead, unexpectedly abandoned by the Canadian and American investors behind the divisive project.

The French family rejoiced as the text messages kept coming. The hard-fought battle that had united a motley crew – farmers and urbanites, politicians and entertainers, aboriginals and top Toronto chefs – was over, for a while at least. Some of Southern Ontario's finest farmland would no longer be transformed into a massive limestone pit.

"It's really good news," said Mr. French, 57, said as he sat on his red tractor. "I was surprised they withdrew it this early. I thought it would go on for another five years.

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The story behind the mega-quarry began six years ago when Ontarian John Lowndes began buying up prime farmland in Melancthon Township, about 120 kilometres north of Toronto. Mr. French and other farmers contend Mr. Lowndes portrayed himself as only interested in producing potatoes, but suspicions soon surfaced. Those suspicions were confirmed last year, when The Highland Companies submitted an application to the province to develop a limestone quarry.

The pit would have been mammoth, converting as much as 765 hectares of farmland into a rock mine. Highland had pledged the natural resource, one billion tonnes of it, would be excavated in stages over many decades and the land would eventually be restored.

But opponents argued the project's environmental and social toll was too great. Ontario's environment ministry had too expressed concerns about the quarry proposal. The limestone deposit sits well below the water table. Highland would have had to pump up and store as much as 600 million litres of water a day to keep the pit's work surface dry.

John Scherer, one of two principals with The Highland Companies, said he believes the quarry proposal was well crafted but it didn't have sufficient support from the community or from the provincial government. In withdrawing its application, Highland also announced Wednesday that Mr. Lowndes, who was president of the operation, has resigned and will have no further involvement with the private company.

"In hindsight, we did not do a real good job of engaging the local community and the public at large about our project and about the benefits and how we would move the project forward," Mr. Scherer said. "As a result there is a lot of misinformation that was out there."

The Highland Companies, formed in 2006, is the operating and investment vehicle for a group of private investors from Canada and the United States. Highland is backed by the Boston-based hedge fund Baupost Group, which has a propensity for buying land likely to increase in value.

Mr. Scherer said Highland will continue its farming operations. Through acquiring farmland for its mega-quarry proposal, the company has become the province's top potato producer, growing, packing and selling about 100 million pounds of potatoes a year. Although many people who opposed the pit are worried a smaller quarry proposal is on the horizon, Mr. Scherer said, "we have no plans to do anything else at this point."

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He noted Highland has also halted its efforts to restore a rail corridor through Dufferin County that would have carried its high-quality limestone, known as Amabel dolostone, to the Greater Toronto Area. Amabel dolostone is an essential ingredient in the making of superior concrete and asphalt for roads and high-rise condominium projects.

The GTA consumes about one-third of the crushed stone, gravel and sand used in the province each year, but supplies of aggregate are tightening as the development of new quarries becomes increasingly difficult in Southern Ontario, the nation's most populous region.

The intense backlash that Highland faced over its Melancthon Quarry proposal could deter other investors, noted Moreen Miller, president of the Ontario, Stone, Sand and Gravel Association.

"The project would have created hundreds of jobs and help to meet the overwhelming need for infrastructure raw material, such as stone, sand and gravel," Ms. Miller said.

Unlike previous conflicts over quarries, the battle over the proposed Melancthon Quarry grew far beyond a local schism. "Stop the Mega Quarry" lawn signs popped up throughout the region and in Toronto. Michael Wilson, a former federal Conservative cabinet minster and onetime Canadian ambassador to the United States, also voiced concern. Mr. Wilson's second home, a country retreat in his family for nearly half a century, is about seven kilometres from the proposed mega quarry.

In the wake of fierce opposition to the quarry, the provincial government last year ordered an environmental assessment of the project, the first time one had been required for a quarry in Ontario. Mr. Scherer said Highland was only in the early stages of its environmental assessment. He declined to reveal how much money had been spent on the proposal.

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"The need [for aggregate] was pretty well documented by the government," Mr. Scherer said. "We believe that the land that we are on is well suited for that."

Maya Gorham, a spokeswoman for the Minister of Natural Resources, acknowledged that the provincial government had heard significant public concern about the mega-quarry.

"Aggregate resources continue to be necessary for Ontario's economy and the revitalization and renewal of our urban infrastructure, however we must strive to achieve an appropriate balance that also protects our water, natural heritage and agricultural resources," she said.

The NDP is calling on the government to complete a review of the Aggregate Resources Act and enhance protection of farmland and watersheds. The quarry was a major issue in the Dufferin-Caledon riding during the 2011 election campaign, said Progressive Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones, dominating every all-candidates' debate. The Liberals promised an environmental review just days before the writ was dropped.

Ms. Jones hailed the company's decision to abandon the project as a "great victory" for community involvement. Weekenders with second homes in the area worked together with long-term residents, helping to build opposition to the controversial project that went well beyond the local level, she noted.

Next door to Bill French, David Vander Zaag recalls the day when thousands of people descended upon his potato farm for Foodstock, a pay-what-you-can event to raise money to fight the mega-quarry. He and other organizers had hoped a few thousand people would attend last year's autumn outdoor feast prepared by some of the Toronto region's top chefs. A few thousand turned into nearly 30,000 people. That's when Mr. Vander Zaag knew this was no longer a local schism.

"People were coming in from everywhere. It was wild. Just wild," he said as he surveyed the forest.

Like his neighbour, Mr. Vander Zaag is worried Highland or another outfit will resurrect a quarry bid. Both he and Mr. French had declined to sell their farms to Highland.

"We know first-hand how good this land is," Mr. Vander Zaag said, pointing down to the deep brown soil. "It really is extraordinary and special farmland."

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National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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