From conflict to cooperation: Napanee comes together on contentious matter
The town of Napanee bore witness to something singular last night, Thursday, May 11, 2023: a public meeting where two opposing sides came together to listen and learn from each other.
The much-anticipated meeting at Strathcona Paper Centre’s banquet hall, to allow Greater Napanee Town Council to hear comments from the public regarding a resolution to declare a portion of the former CN rail line as surplus lands, was attended by over 200 concerned citizens.
As previously reported, various stakeholders in the town had expressed concerns about the use of the land, which runs through dairy farms abutting the Strathcona area; some want it to become a public multiuse trail, and others are deeply concerned that the public use would be destructive to their farming operations.
After an introduction by Mayor Terry Richardson that included the history of the subject land, Dr. Tom Touzel was the first citizen to speak. Touzel is a founding member of the Napanee Active Transportation Allies (ATA) and had made previous overtures to Council on the group’s behalf, asking that the land be used to connect a Napanee trail to the current terminus of the Cataraqui Trail in Strathcona.
After making a “plea for civility” and acknowledging “emotions are high,” Touzel began, “I’m just a citizen trying to promote some active trails… I really don’t think there are any bad people in this unfolding story, and this is a very human story.”
He described how the ATA began to approach Council: “Sometimes when I get an idea in my head, I get pretty caught up in it. So then [I talked to] Dave Milligan, who is a dairy farmer just outside town… and I talked to his dad, as well. We both said some things that we now regret, and I don’t think either has made enough effort to understand the other.”
“So I have an apology today, because I now know Dave in a different way,” Touzel continued. “I saw him as an opponent, and he is not. He’s a good father, he’s a good farmer, and he saw his business threatened by the thing that I was proposing. And, over time, our camps entrenched a bit. The rhetoric heightened, and we didn’t try to understand each other. And when the land was declared surplus, two weeks after I made a presentation to the Council… I really saw that as a threat.”
“But ultimately, it took some cool heads and smarter people to see solutions where other people, including me, saw barriers,” Touzel acknowledged.
“Our goal is to develop a trail, a whole series of trails, so that people can get around our town without a vehicle, go places in and out of town, and go about their daily lives on their feet, on their bikes, or behind their strollers,” Touzel explained. “And the other goal is to create a trail from Napanee to connect to the Cataraqui Trail… For reasons that I now clearly understand after talking to Dave Milligan… that trail is possible, but probably not possible in the route that I initially saw.”
After many discussions between ATA members and Milligan, Touzel said, “Ultimately, Dave has proposed an alternative route that is exciting and workable and doesn’t go right by his barn. And my pledge is to work with the landowners and the farming community to make this happen.”
“Finally,” Touzel concluded, “I’ll just say it’s one of the great human experiences to go along a journey and, on that journey, an opponent becomes a friend and an ally. I think Dave and I have made that journey together. From those discussions, I think we have a really good chance to build a series of trails that Napanee can be quite proud of.”
After Touzel’s statements, the assembled crowd cheered emphatically.
David Milligan of Millspring Farms spoke next, thanking Touzel and saying, “The way this whole thing started was that Tom had a vision, and I had a different vision — and that was for our family and our farm. We didn’t see eye to eye at first… but we found out that we had a lot of common goals, and a lot of respect for each other.”
Milligan continued by describing how he and his family own and operate Millspring Farms: “We’re in the fourth generation of producing milk and crops for local consumption. While still young, the fifth generation shares the same passion for agriculture as we do. As farmers, we produce the food that people require to feed their families.”
“Our family are stewards to the land,” Milligan went on. “We use no-till, reduced tillage [techniques], and our efforts are [for] soil conservation. We invest money into technology to decrease our carbon footprint and be as efficient as we can be. Our milk marketing board is committed to being net-zero for carbon emissions by 2050. We quite honestly strive to be better each and every day at what we do. Agriculture is Lennox and Addington’s biggest industry, which I’m proud to say we are an integral part of.”
Milligan stressed the importance of the agricultural sector, not just for the Town and County, but also for the province and country.
“Canada’s huge landmass only has 4.26 percent farmable land available to produce food for everyone. The recent changes to the greenbelt areas [make it] more critical to conserve farmland and the farms themselves, as we are losing both at a rapid rate,” he stated, explaining that Ontario is reportedly losing 319 acres of farmland daily as a result of urban sprawl and many other factors.
He went on to say, “The average age of Canadian farmers is 58… This is a huge problem. We all want local, high-quality food for our families. We need to protect farms. Forcing farms out of production will only increase our reliance on other countries… [which] don’t always have the same quality standards or the same thoughts on reducing their carbon footprint for the benefit of future generations. And quite honestly, without food, we all have no future.”
“I’m not here tonight to debate active living or physical activity,” Milligan emphasized. “We all need to be as active as we can be in many different ways. I’m only here speaking on behalf of our family farm and the agricultural industry that we need to preserve.”
He pointed out that there were solutions to the trail and recreational space issues that do not need to diminish two multigenerational farms. “I’m open to working with the other stakeholders in developing and seeing these projects through, as they are all in our best interests.”
He explained that public travel in the existing space would mean the compromise of food and equipment, as well as human safety on his farm, and that “the liability would be huge.”
“To summarize,” said Milligan, “there are solutions that can work for everyone involved: the Town of Greater Napanee, the Active Transportation Allies, the property owners, and the businesses. The first step in all of this was severely overlooked, and that was communication… Since then, I believe we’ve made great strides, and I think we can really accomplish something. Let’s all come together as a community [and] stop this online misinformation. Let’s work towards an end goal we can all be proud of and enjoy for generations to come.”
Mayor Richardson thanked both men for their “very honourable and knowledgeable words.” The rest of the evening saw 22 registered speakers, most of whom noted that the tone of the meeting was not what they had expected at all and that they were proud to live in a town with so many kind people who could look beyond differences of opinion to find solutions.
Reached for comment on May 12, Rob Sutton of Sutton Farms (Nacona) Ltd., another farm abutting the CN line, said, “I hope the message that everyone took home last night was that we need to work together on this issue. If people have questions, reach out to both sides for the answers to those concerns. The Milligans and Suttons have never been against this trail, just the route — and we are willing to work with everyone on an alternative route to link up to the Cat trail.”
Mayor Richardson, who missed his hockey game at 9 p.m. to be at the meeting until 10 p.m., responded to a request for comment early this morning, May 12.
In an email, Richardson described the May 11 meeting as “productive and respectful, just as this community would expect. I think some very positive steps were accomplished last night, hopefully with the understanding that this is, and still remains, a complex issue, involving public and private stakeholders spread across two municipal jurisdictions. That said, last night was a very positive step in the right direction.”
The public meeting was recorded by Town staff and will be available to view soon on the Town of Greater Napanee YouTube Channel. More in-depth coverage by the Kingstonist will be available in the coming days.
3 thoughts on “From conflict to cooperation: Napanee comes together on contentious matter”
This is a wonderful, good news story, a very human story about overcoming our personal biases, mistrust, and fears in order to strengthen community. We’ve all been through three horrific pandemic years that sowed hopelessness and deep divisions. This kind of reporting is exactly what we all need right now to raise our spirits. Congratulations to Ms Forestell for writing it and to The Kingstonist for publishing it.
A great lesson in civility and empathy.
And wow! A chance to report good news!
The Milligans and Suttons have never been against this trail, just the route — and we are willing to work with everyone on an alternative route to link up to the Cat trail.”
Fantastic quote. There is the ‘beginning’.