“Incrementalism” and the Continuous Loss of Agricultural Land in PEI

Wade in Boiling Water

Have you ever called PEI the “Million Acre Farm?” Yeah, well…stop doing that. It’s been a very long time since that was true!

There were 2,833 farms with 673,196 acres of farmland in 1986; by 2016, there were just 1,353 farms with 575,400 acres of farmland.

PEI has lost an incredible 97,796 acres of farmland and 1,480 farms (over 50% of all farms!) in just 40 years.

How has this happened? Incrementally….and almost imperceptibly. And it’s still happening, thanks largely to the refusal of the current provincial government to plug holes in the Lands Protection Act and make an authentic commitment to protect PEI’s agricultural land by articulating and adopting a long-term vision for PEI’s land base with the integrated policies, programs and practices capable of achieving that vision.

The Maclauchlan government is employing deceptive and irresponsible administrative practices to manage (or perhaps “mismanage” would be a more appropriate word) our land which ethicists refer to as “incrementalism.” This approach keeps Islanders from becoming aware of just how dire the situation is, by fragmenting the largely secretive decision-making process that allows this negative trend to continue. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly but steadily heating up to the deadly point of boiling, government’s management of our land tends to deflect the focus away from the crisis leaving us largely unaware of the urgent need to take the pot off the stove and scoop the ailing frog out of the pot before it’s too late.

The ethical theory “Incrementalism” – sometimes also referred to as the “slippery slope” approach to decision-making – describes how we can subtly (even unconsciously) lower ethical standards over time, through small changes in behavior.

Incrementalism occurs when we consistently ignore the long-term, cumulative moral consequences of smaller decisions taken in steps, which allows the future outcomes of those incremental decisions to escape moral consideration. It’s short-term, short-sighted decision-making inspired neither by true moral purpose nor spiritual vision.

Similarly, there is also a public policy approach referred to as “incrementalism,” where short-sighted political decisions are made without proper consideration of the long-term, cumulative impacts of those decisions. And that is clearly the method currently being employed by the MacLauchlan government with respect to the administration of our Lands Protection Act.

Rather than honouring the spirit and intention of the Act which was put into effect in part to protect and preserve PEI’s available agricultural farmland, “incrementalism” is allowing the steady, gradual loss of prime farmland. It’s a deceptive and dangerous strategy which avoids an honest, open and truly transparent decision-making process governing the administration and management of land.

When non-residents apply to purchase prime farmland, Executive Council usually approves those requests on condition that the land remain “agricultural land”. In other words, there is some consideration given to the longer-term social and moral dimension of the decision. And these conditional approvals are routinely granted, even when it is clear to members of Executive Council when they make them that the purchaser has no intention of farming the land, or even leasing the land to existing Island farmers.

Attaching the condition that the land must remain “farmland” in such cases is entirely deceptive, since the decision to allow the purchase in such cases essentially represents a decision to allow the land to be taken out of agricultural production, despite the fact that the wording in the approval order comes across as a strong commitment (Executive Council actually uses capital letters to impress upon the reader how serious they are in imposing the restriction) by government to protect Island farmland.

In some cases, despite the imposed condition, it is even known by Executive Council members that the purchase is already attached to a business plan that will result in a subsequent application to government for reclassification of the land from “agriculture” to “development”.

When the application for reclassification is eventually made, the focus conveniently shifts away from “protecting agricultural land” to all the positive benefits that will accrue from the development of the land; coupled, of course, with arguments that the land has been sitting idle, is unproductive, is not contributing to the economic well-being of the Island, etc. The public is given the mandatory opportunity to have “input” – so the pretense of open public consultations has been met, then Executive Council (usually) grants approval.

This incremental two-step process brings about exactly the same end-result as if the land had been approved for sale by Executive Council with no “condition” that it remain agricultural in the first instance, but it somehow makes the entire process seem more reasonable, democratic, acceptable and benign. And it also helps to protect government from backlash that might otherwise come from focussed public attention on government allowing the sale of agricultural land to non-residents or corporations for non-agricultural purposes.

Such is the incremental strategy presently underway with three agricultural land parcels in Heatherdale purchased by the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) in 2016. Although those parcels were initially allowed to be purchased with the condition they remain “agricultural,” less than two years later, an application has now been filed by GEBIS to have the land reclassified for development, with a notice appearing in the Guardian on October 10, 2018 announcing that:

“…an application will be made to the Lieutenant Governor in Council to cancel the land identification agreement on Property numbers 253666, 483404 and 253732 located at Heatherdale, Lot 59, Kings County, owned by Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society.”

Here’s the full backstory on this case: GEBIS made an application to IRAC on August 15, 2013 to purchase each of these three properties. Because the recommendations which IRAC make to Executive Council are not made public [I would change that, if I was to become leader of the PC Party and then Premier of PEI] we don’t actually know what IRAC recommended to Executive Council, nor the grounds and rationale for their recommendation, but we do know that Executive Council gave approval to all three requests in November, 2016.

The applications reveal that property #253666 is 68.9 acres; property #483404 is 56.8 acres and property #253732 is 70 acres. totaling 195.70 acres. In all three cases, approval with Identification was given on Nov. 15, 2016 (EC2016-772) clearly stating non-development use. The approval for these three parcels of land can be found in the Order in Council dated November 15, 2016, and reads as follows [note the capital letters]:







Pursuant to section 5 and section 9 of the Prince Edward Island Lands Protection Act R.S.P.E.I. 1988, Cap. L-5 Council granted permission to Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society of Montague, Prince Edward Island to acquire a land holding of approximately one hundred and ninety-five decimal seven (195.7) acres of land at Heatherdale, Lot 59, Kings County, Province of Prince Edward Island, being acquired from Tachun Cho of Montague, Prince Edward Island PROVIDED THAT identification for non-development use pursuant to the Land Identification Regulations (EC606/95) made under the said Act shall apply to each of the three (3) separate subdivided lots comprising Provincial Property No. 253666 that has received planning approval and also to the remaining land of approximately one hundred and twenty-six decimal eight (126.8) acres.

What exactly was Executive Council members thinking when they approved these land purchases stipulating that the agricultural land must remain agricultural? They knew at the time that the reason GEBIS purchased the land was to develop the land. Given that fact, there is absolutely no basis for them to grant the present request to change the identification, but just wait to see what will likely happen!

With each of these applications, GEBIS indicated the “Intended Use” was not agricultural, but “Other”. Why did Executive Council approve the land purchases stipulating that the land must remain classified as agricultural land when they knew it was not purchased for agricultural use? It should not have been approved in the first place, but since it was, the requirement that it remain agricultural land should now be honoured since nothing has changed from the day Executive Council made its decision and imposed that condition.

GEBIS has made no secret of the fact that their plan for the land is not simply some nondescript “other” purpose – it’s to build a monastery. In fact – notwithstanding the condition that the land remain agricultural, GEBIS has held open houses announcing and describing their plans to the public. Such development can (and should) happen on non-agricultural, marginal land – it should not be further reducing the amount of farmland available to Island farmers.

It would be an interesting research project to calculate how much good farmland has been approved for sale to non-residents or corporations by the Liberal government over the past 11 years [despite their “all caps” insistence in initial decisions stipulating that the land must remain agricultural] then some time later – employing the dubious ethical (perhaps “unethical” would be a better word) and public policy approach of “Incrementalism”] – then subsequently “reclassified” allowing non-agricultural development. The problem is that – despite assurance by IRAC’s CEO Scott MacKenzie almost a year ago that the Land Databank would be made “searchable” by other parameters besides “Parcel Number” but hasn’t been – such a research project is pretty much impossible to undertake. Making that information truly “public” and easily accessible is something else I would immediately do as premier – and that measure would cost nothing!

In coming weeks, I intend to present a comprehensive land use policy that would not only close the loopholes in the current Lands Protection Act, but will map out a long-term strategy ensuring both the full protection and gradual reclamation of PEI agricultural land. That policy will include establishing a provincial land-banking system, bringing significant amendments strengthening the Lands Protection Act, and revamping the way land sales are both adjudicated, administered and reported.

The present system governing the management, classification, reclassification and sale of Island land is rife with secrecy and deception and urgently needs to be replaced with a truly transparent system which (1) clearly identifies the collective needs of all Islanders (especially the future needs of future Islanders, yet to be born, or too young to speak for themselves) and (2) makes those needs the priority.

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