Save our private Land: Increasingly strict regulations limits land development

Commentary, Elizabeth Nickson

50,000 core rural jobs have been lost since environmental planning began

Ten thousand careers in and out of the civil service have been dedicated to saving land, foundations founded, organizational fields devised and put into action. University departments and sustainability think tanks churn out weighty papers, demonstrating the urgent, if not frantic need to “save land.”

The result? Less than 15 per cent of Ontario lies in private hands, the rest either fallow Crown Land or public resource lands, those latter more severely restricted every year. That 15 per cent available to private citizens lies under increasingly strict regulation, having to conform to the 70 environmental acts, plans and agreements with their attendant regulations and rules, put in place since 1972.

Further, the employees of 36 Conservation Authorities, one for each region, lobby ceaselessly for enforcement and sequestration. Many CA’s have spun off a separate land trust which raises money to acquire land. Another 38 Ontario-based conservation organizations also lobby ceaselessly for increased environmental oversight, and raise money to buy land. Finally 132 national and international conservation organizations are active in Ontario, these dedicated to acquiring land and increasing regulation on private land.

In the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto, commonly known as cottage country, in addition to the above acts a new form of conservation called Land Form Conservation requires that any new development including, in some cases, a guest cottage or a garage requires 17 separate conservation plans before development takes place. Substantial costs are part of each plan. This scheme effectively moves the middle and working class out of property ownership.

Bill 66, the Great Lakes Protection Act now in committee, will tie up Ontario’s vast and wealthy north in impenetrable webs of regulation. Equally, as has become typical in sustainable land use planning, control of those lands will be alienated from local governments and citizens and given to individuals appointed by the bureaucracy. These tribunals are sometimes called Guardian Councils, no indication given whether the Orwellian reference is ironic. Conservation organizations prefer to act in federation, with as few elected officials on the board as can be managed, with the ability to move tax money from wealthy municipalities to those towns and regions less able to fight the sequestration of their land.

Property tax on private land typically funds most municipal services, like repairs to roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, sewers and water systems. In Ontario the structural municipal debt is $60 billion in arrears and OMERS, the pension fund for municipal workers is, in part, unfunded. The massive bump up in the municipal section of the Sunshine List has everything to do with the increased number of bureaucrats required to administer Ontario’s vast environmental regulatory burden.

Shrinking income from property tax on private lands is now being repurposed to devise province-wide “watershed planning.” Small communities of less than 500 now face a bill of as much as $500,000 to create plans for watersheds, which will only restrict use further. This is of course, deliberate, the countryside is meant to be “our rural air conditioner,” a draconian solution to climate change. Which is working.

In the past 20 years, while Ontario’s cities have spiked in population by 60 per cent, rural population dropped almost 10 per cent. In March 2012, Ontario’s provincial government announced that it planned to wind down the Ontario Northern Transportation Commission, divest and liquidate its assets, an enormous blow to northern businesses. In March 2014, the University of Guelph announced that it will close its two rural campuses in Kemptville and Alfred. Ontario provincial government now proposes revisions to the Ontario Provincial Police municipal billing model, which will significantly increase costs to small, rural municipalities and the province is exploring decreased health services to rural seniors.

For working people in the country, life has become nasty, brutish and short. Running a rural business is a trial of endurance. Many suffer early heart disease and suicide is becoming regrettably common. Cleverly named government-sponsored tribunals drop into towns to show citizens how they live in “special places” and don’t need polluting manufacturing and resource jobs. Councils are encouraged to spend money on cobblestones and ye olde street signs. Ecotourists will come, they are told, but they don’t. There aren’t enough tourists in the world to replace the 50,000 core rural jobs lost since environmental planning began. Core rural jobs have powerful vertical and horizontal multipliers that are not fully understood.

Ontario’s rural economy powered Canada for 150 years. Killing it is a messy and expensive business.

This op ed was originally published by The Financial Post on Monday, May 4, 2015: http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/save-our-private-land-increasingly-strict-regulations-limits-land-development