A New Land Policy for Prince Edward Island
“The most valuable resource on Prince Edward Island is… the top ten inches of our soil. That is the most valuable aspect to us in how we are going to survive in the years to come.” – Horace Carver.
“The Gift of Jurisdiction: Our Island Province“: Report of the Commission on the Lands Protection Act, June, 2013, p. 1.
1. The Problem(s):
A number of serious problems related to land are currently facing Prince Edward Island, each of which requires an urgent and decisive policy response from government.
These problems are interconnected, some of which can only be properly understood and addressed with policies, plans and programs comprising a comprehensive new Farm & Food policy.
I have already outlined some of the elements of such a comprehensive policy at a NFU-sponsored PC Candidates Forum on the Land that took place on January 22 (Tuesday) from 7:30 – 9:30 at the Murchinson Centre in Charlottetown. I have also written a framework for a Farm and Food policy in a submission I prepared for the National Farmers Union which was presented to the PEI Department of Agriculture Standing Committee titled: “The Preferred Road for PEI Agriculture.“
The connections between land, water, agriculture, environment, rural communities, and our Island economy are intimate, and it is neither possible to understand the problems facing these different aspects of Island life nor propose remedies and solutions in isolation from one another. Nonetheless, it is possible to speak about and analyse these areas separately as an important first step toward building a truly coherent forward-looking approach, and the key to ensuring that interdependent coherence and mutual support with all policy comes from having those policies share the same long-term vision for PEI. Nowhere is this more the case than with Land policy.
The foundation upon which a food and agricultural policy rests – not to mention an overall development strategy – is our land. My land policy offers remedies to a range of problems that can be grouped under three broad headings: (a) ensuring healthy soil; (b) maintaining ownership and control of land; and (c) ensuring the proper use and development of land.
(a) Land and the Declining Health of our Soil
A healthy society requires healthy people. Healthy people require healthy food. And healthy food only comes from healthy soil. Unfortunately, more and more of PEI’s soil is increasingly unhealthy. This was the conclusion of an important 18 year study measuring soil organic matter (SOM) in our soil.
In its 1997 report, Cultivating Island Solutions, the Round Table on Resource Land Use and Stewardship recommended that government adopt soil organic matter as the primary measure of soil quality, and that a monitoring system be put in place to track the progress of this indicator, and this was done. Fast forward 18 years.
Consider the following findings reported in “Changes in soil organic matter over 18 yr in Prince Edward Island, Canada“ [Can. J. Soil Sci. Vol. 97, 2017, p. 752]:
“Most of the area (56% of the total land) was characterized by a shift from class 3 (3.1%–4%) to class 2 (2%–3%), which implies an overall decline of approximately 1% SOM in 18 yr.”
“Changes from class 4 (>4%) to class 2 (2%–3%) and from class 4 (>4%) to class 3 (3.1%–4%) occurred in 8% and 11% of the total area, respectively.”
According to the Minnesota Agricultural Extension Department, with each 0.5% drop in SOM, the nutrient holding capacity of the soil drops 15%. For more information on this read my article: “Declining Soil Organic Matter in PEI: An Indictment of Corporate Farming.”
These alarming findings point to a core crisis situation with land that lies at the root of many other major challenges we are facing; problems including: increased soil erosion; increased contamination of our ground water from higher rates of chemical fertilizers and pesticides leaching into aquifers; greater damage to our coastal estuaries from increased nitrate levels from surface runoff and groundwater flow; more fish kills from pesticides runoff; shellfish die-offs from anoxic events; higher rates of health-related problems in the general population due to the need to apply greater amounts of chemical fertilizers and farm pesticides on account of unhealthy soil (which fosters greater pest problems); greater application of pesticides due to genetically-engineered seeds made tolerant to pesticides; wide-spread use of pesticide-coated seed; etc.
The seriousness of this situation can not be overstated – in geological time, 18 years is a mere blip. During this short period we have destroyed a significant degree of the moisture and nutrient holding capacity of our soil, and we are – in many areas of our province – continuing to do so with the same system of intensive monoculture food production in place. There would be no cry for more deep water wells if our soils were healthy and capable of retaining moisture.
Some argue that farms must become more “efficient,” and that efficiency is improved with an increase in size. This economic theory is referred to as “economy of scale.” The fact of the matter is that farmers have not been able to receive a fair return on their investment despite increasing in size. The problem is not that we have an inefficient system, but that we have an unjust system. And, as the Carver Commission on the Land noted, allowing the further concentration of agricultural land to happen with larger farms has only exacerbated the problem of soil health:
“The evidence shows that as farms have gotten bigger, soil quality has generally declined. This is a most serious situation.” (p. 29).
(b) Land Speculation and Land “Grabbing”
One of ten ‘shared values’ agreed to by both the National Farmers Union and Federation of Agriculture during the 2013 Lands Protection Act hearings was the following:
“Large-scale purchase of land, also known as ‘land grabbing’, would be harmful to the interests of Prince Edward Island and must be guarded against.”
At that time, there was no significant evidence that land speculation and land grabbing was a serious concern. Nonetheless, recognizing the serious potential negative impacts from such a trend, the final report make the following astute observation:
“The time will come again, perhaps soon, when Island land will again come under pressure from non-resident buyers. Government should have a policy in place to deal with the demand, and devise means to protect our precious shorefront and our most important natural resource the land from those whose interests may not be what’s best for Prince Edward Island’s land.” (p. 32)
In the 5-year period since the Carver Commission, land speculation and the purchase of land by non-residents and corporations has indeed become a growing concern. The Liberal government has done nothing to tackle this issue arising from a growing awareness among farmers and the general public that non-residents and corporations are buying up an alarming amount of land – and often taking agricultural land out of production.
I recently wrote an article “Incrementalism” and the Continuous Loss of Agricultural Land in PEI which discussed how the Premier and Executive Council regularly approve land sales to non-residents with a condition that the land must remain “agricultural,” but then subsequently entertain and approve requests to “reclassify” the land as non-agricultural. What prompted me to write that article was a notice in the Guardian (required by the Lands Protection Act) indicating that the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) had submitted an application to have the restrictions removed on three parcels of land which Executive Council had previously allowed them to buy, but designated each as non-developmental (e.g., they must remain “agricultural”).
“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!”
I was attempting to apply some pre-emptive pressure on the Premier and Executive Council to deny this request, but alas, my effort didn’t work!
Last week (January 15, 2019) Premier MacLauchlan and Executive Council approved that request from GEBIS to change the identification on those three parcels of land and just like that, voila!, another 195 acres of farmland in Kings county that was only allowed to be purchased IF IT WAS TO REMAIN FARMLAND was given approval for development:
It’s been almost a year since the Minister responsible for Communities, Lands and Environment, Hon. Richard Brown, announced a review of the land holdings of non-residents and corporations. To say that he’s been kicking that can down the road would be a major understatement. The Minister didn’t even formally ask IRAC to do the review until October 28, 2018, and although he indicated the results would be made available by the end of January, 2019, I was told by the CEO of IRAC, Scott MacKenzie, that it won’t be available until the end of April, 2019.
I was willing to do this land ownership research myself, which I figured would take a week or so, but have been unable to convince IRAC to add new search fields to its database to enable me to access the records. After two Guardian Guest Opinions (“Kept in the Dark Too Long,” March 21, 2018; and “Access Still Denied,” November 13, 2018) pressuring IRAC to make this change, Mr. MacKenzie informed me this Monday (January 21, 2019) that he has finally ordered the changes to be made so Islanders will be able to search the database by individual and corporate name by the end of January, 2019 (currently it can only be searched by parcel number).
The pretense of “doing something” by announcing a review is a tired and cynical response by the Liberal government to the cry from Islanders for decisive action to protect our Land. When Minister Brown first called for this review nearly a year ago I published a Guest Opinion in Island Newspapers highlighting this point (“We Need Remedies, Not a Rules Review.”)
The continuous trend of farm consolidation can be viewed as another facet of the “land grabbing” phenomena (larger farms on the one hand; fewer farms on the other), and to counter this unhealthy trend, the limits established within the Lands Protection Act must not be increased. Unfortunately, the vigilance required to ensure that both the spirit and letter of the Lands Protection Act are respected has been sorely lacking, and new policies are urgently required (see below).
(c) The Need for a Provincial Zoning Plan
Although PEI is unique among provinces in that it has a Lands Protection Act, the same can not be said concerning a “Land Zoning Policy”. In fact, there is none. As Jean-Paul Arsenault stated so succinctly in a Guest Opinion published November 20, 2014:
“Currently, 32 municipal official plans provide a framework for land use planning decisions over 10 per cent of the province, and a disjointed set of provincially-administered rules applies to the remaining 90 per cent. These rules are not connected to a provincial policy, because there is none. In fact, there are a whopping 30,000 approved vacant building lots in areas outside the 32 official plan municipalities.
Why has the provincial government permitted so much precious land —often our richest agricultural land — to be tied up in subdivision developments? The answer may lie in the potential benefits to be derived from development: construction and maintenance jobs, sales tax revenue and, most significantly, property tax revenue — steeper for non-residents.”
Far too much discretionary power has been left in the hands of a small group of people (the Premier and Executive Council) regarding decisions surrounding the development and subdivision of roughly 90% of Prince Edward Island. Such power needs to be curtailed, since it lends itself to abuse and fosters the potential for corrupt governance.
2. The Solution(s)
All Islanders have a vested interest and responsibility to ensure the protection and preservation of our land. The water, the soil and the air are also public trusts, and all who own land have a responsibility to protect these essential resources.
Yet, the land is increasingly under threat and it seems that farm organizations and concerned citizens are increasingly being kept in the dark about the executive decisions and administrative processes negatively affecting land. A number of significant changes are urgently needed to address this situation which can only happen with a range of new policy measures.
(a) A New Farm and Agricultural Policy
To address the problem of our declining Soil Organic Matter; increasing soil erosion; unacceptable levels of farm chemicals and pesticides being applied to soil; the leaching of nitrates into our groundwater and runoff into our streams, waterways and coastal estuaries; etc. a comprehensive agricultural and food vision and strategy is required. The writing is on the wall with chemical-intensive, monocultural, cash-cropping of food commodities like potatoes and soybeans for the global commodity markets. Farmers are being squeezed and the solution is not found in “getting bigger”.
The solution is found in an entirely new model of farming and food production that respects the land and water, and provides profit margins directly to farmers to ensure a fair and decent living. Many of the core elements of what has to happen to begin to move systematically toward the realization of such a vision have been presented in previous studies, commission reports and analysis of how to address core problems affecting the health and long-term sustainability of our land. What has been lacking is the political will and resolve to forge ahead with the changes necessary to bring about such a system transformation. As Premier, I will take the initiative to initiative and navigate such a process, beginning immediately upon being elected.
Commitment #1: Appoint a Separate Minister Responsible for Agriculture
Currently the Minister of Agriculture is also the Minister of Fisheries. Each of these two industries are deserving of having a full-time Minister.
Commitment #2: Establish a Food and Agricultural Transition Task Force
Within the first three months of being elected Premier, I will establish a Food and Agricultural Transition Task Force comprised of (a) Premier (chair); (b) Minister of Agriculture; (c) Minister of Communities, Lands and Environment; and (d) Leaders of the National Farmers Union and Federation of Agriculture. A consensus would be reached at the first meeting regarding the most appropriate composition and representation for the Task Force on a go-forward basis. This Task Force would meet not less than once a month, and until such time as a comprehensive Food and Agricultural transitional strategy was drafted and ready for presentation to the public. An Island-wide consultation process would then follow, with a final plan then being presented to the full legislative assembly for consideration, amendment and endorsement. Subsequent new legislation and/or amendments to existing statutes would need to be enacted to facilitate the implementation of the plan, including the introduction and/or modifications of existing plans, programs and services within all relevant departments and divisions of government.
Commitment #3: The Establishment of a Land Banking System for PEI.
Both the National Farmers Union and Federation of Agriculture share the belief that the time has come for the provincial government to establish a land banking system. Although this consensus has been reached with our farm organizations, the political will to take this important action has been lacking under the Liberal government. In fact, the establishment of a land banking system or “Farmland Trust” was a recommendation of the most recent Commission on the Land:
“Recommendation 21: “That the provincial government establish the Island Farmland Trust as a Crown corporation, using public funds, for the purpose of buying farmland and leasing or selling it to resident bona fide farmers, and that a feasibility study be conducted to determine if the Trust could be supplemented by some level of private funding.” (P. 51).
(b) Amending the Lands Protection Act
Although the PEI Lands Protection Act is an excellent piece of legislation, it needs to be significantly updated to deal with a number of shortcomings and loopholes within the Act which are currently being exploited in such a way as to circumvent the true spirit of the legislation.
Commitment #4: Restore Regulatory Authority to Legislative Assembly
The “regulatory” authority for the Lands Protection Act would be taken away from IRAC and rehoused within the Department of Community, Lands and Environment – IRAC would retain only an administrate role with respect to Land management.
Commitment #5: Centralized and Transparent Land Transaction Database
All land transactions in PEI would be recorded in a single information storage system that would make it possible to easily interface with the Business and Corporate Registry so as to easily and fully track the names of individuals owning and/or leasing land, as well as the shareholders, directors, officers of all companies and corporations establish in – or operating within – PEI. This would ensure a truly transparent system that would be searchable by any Island resident at any time from any place online for free.
Commitment #6: Free Access to Geolinc System
As recommended by the Carver Commission on the Land, free access to the Geolinc system would be provided at terminals in all Access Centres in PEI. Islanders should not have to pay to obtain information about our land that is collected and managed by the provincial government.
Commitment #7: Amendment of the Lands Protection Act
A “white paper” will be prepared mapping out proposed amendments to the Lands Protection Act, followed by a series of public consultations on proposed changes, followed by the introduction of a Bill to Amend the Act.
(C) A New Land Zoning Policy for PEI
Although it will undoubtedly be a difficult and highly contentious endeavour, the time has come for PEI to put a zoning policy in place for the entire Island. This will require intensive discussions with municipalities, businesses, organizations, and Island citizens. The goal will be to establish uniform guidelines and regulations to establish fairness for all citizens on the one hand, while achieving the shared goals ensuring a shared vision for the land and landscapes that define and characterize Prince Edward Island as the beautiful and unique province it is on the other hand. Without a provincial land policy we are left with a system that allows a handful of people to exercise discretion in decision-making regarding land identification, zoning, and development, and such discretion too easily lends itself to unfairness, conflicts of interest, partisan cronyism, and corruption.
Commitment # 8: Implementation of a Provincial Land Policy
To establish a working group with representation from relevant government departments, municipalities, developers, organizations and planners to produce a “white paper” serving as a draft proposal with the goal of establishing a comprehensive provincial land policy for PEI. Public consultations would follow, culminating in a new PEI Provincial Planning Act being introduced, debated, and enacted.