Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Right To ??

There was a small, obscure story almost two weeks ago that has a lot of resonance here on PEI.

Two Conservative politicians (one an MP, the other an MLA) from Ontario will introduce resolutions in their respective legislatures to promote the idea that "property rights" are badly needed in Canada. Most Canadians probably don't know  it isn't part of the Charter, mostly because it's so widely talked about in the U.S. media.

The way the National Post tells it, there were dastardly "left-wing" forces at work preventing "property rights" joining the other rights and freedoms we enjoy.  In fact it was a couple of Conservative politicians from PEI who played a central role in keeping "property rights" out of the document.

Before coming to my senses, I worked for CBC Radio in Ottawa and clearly remember  grizzled national reporters covering federal/provincial meetings (1980) on repatriating the constitution being impressed with a "kindly gentleman farmer/premier", and a young bright attorney-general from PEI. Some said they were the only two in the room who made any sense.

Angus MacLean was the farmer, and Horace Carver (not so young anymore) was the attorney-general.  Both argued passionately that property rights would badly damage the social and economic interests of PEI. There is the whole history of absentee landlords, but more importantly, that "the land" was the only real resource the province had,  so the provincial government had to maintain the ability to control who owned how much of it, and how that land could be used.   These common sense ideas appealed to many of the national journalists, when so much else about the Constitutional discussions was abstract and theoretical.

Property Rights didn't make the cut, and it's given columnists with the National Post, and researchers  with  the Fraser Institute lots to complain about over the years. 

What's more interesting (and to some, including myself, frustrating) is what Islanders have done with this hard-won political victory. Not much.  There is the Lands Protection Act (pushed through the PEI legislature by the same Carver and Maclean in 1981) which limits corporate land ownership, foreign-controlled beach frontage, and so on. It's had several amendments, and continues to confound and irritate many.  But ownership is one thing, "land use" it appears is something quite different.

The last time someone made the effort to address this was just over a year ago with the release of a report by retired Justice  Ralph Thompson called  the Commission on Land Use and Local Governance.  The opening of a newspaper report on the release spoke volumes.  

"Prince Edward Island has been advised for the fourth time since 1973 to adopt a comprehensive policy on land use."

(No recent sightings on how much dust has settled on the Thompson report.)

Thompson argues that PEI has a limited land base, and if economic forces (essentially real estate sales people and developers) are left to determine how land is used, Islanders won't be happy with the end result.

""When you see prime agricultural land being turned into subdivisions, it doesn't speak well for the agriculture industry or the province as a whole down the road," Thompson says.
Thompson recommends a timeline of three years for the development, public consultation and final adoption of a comprehensive land-use plan by 2012."

There are a lot of farmers, forest contractors, and other  big landowners who see this kind of discussion on land use as uninformed meddling by "landless intellectuals" who work in government and educational institutions, and will comfortably live out their old age on a government pension. (A CBC pension isn't quite as good as that, and I paid in a hell of a lot of money  to get it, and at least I can argue that I own land)

Thompson, and Elmer MacDonald before him, and Doug Boylan before that,  were all acutely aware of what land means to farmers and foresters. It provides the equity they use to keep going through difficult economic times (see an earlier post on that), and most importantly, after a decade of negative incomes, and loss of millions of dollars of equity on Island farms,  a chance to walk away with more than a tin cup to pee in.  We may not like it, but we shouldn't be surprised that farmers resist restrictions on shore front development, or the right to clear cut forests.  I would argue that developing proper land-use policies has to go hand in hand with a realistic policy to get farm incomes into the black again.  If farmers are making money (having some fun?) then farmland producing income generating food will be much more valuable to them, and to the rest of us.

 Over the years provincial governments of all stripes  have talked the talk (and generated lots of discussion and paper to prove it) but walking the walk is something else again. There are jurisdictions (New Jersey for one) that use money from "urban" developers to pay farmers the development "premium" on shore frontage for example. In return the land can never be developed in the future. I'll talk more about that in future posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment