Islanders have a long and deep-rooted connection with the land. Or, more specifically, with land use and land ownership. Our dark history with absentee landlords has made Islanders suspicious when large tracts of farmland are gobbled up, change hands or controlled by newcomers or big corporations.
When groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) are suggesting that some individuals and corporations are circumventing P.E.I.’s land ownership laws, it grabs our attention.
Things boiled over last week when the NFU came out swinging before a legislative standing committee. Representatives told MLAs that several big corporations are buying up large amounts of farmland, even though P.E.I. has caps on the amount of land any one individual or company can own.
The NFU pointed the finger at three groups they allege are using loopholes to own or control more land than is legally permitted - Cavendish Farms, the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute (GEBIS) and Vanco Farms. They argued that while the letter of the law is being followed, the spirit of the law is not.
Those complaints drew a response from Communities, Land and Environment Minister Robert Mitchell but his defence was muted. He used careful language, saying, “no one is currently breaking P.E.I.’s land protection legislation.” It sounded like a phrase was missing at the end – “that he knows of.”
The minister is well aware of the NFU’s concerns but without evidence, he’s at a loss on how to proceed. He needs proof and all he has are allegations.
IRAC reviews land transactions and passes them along to cabinet for a final decision. Considering the delicate nature of the land question, it would be regulatory and political suicide to approve egregious exemptions to existing laws.
If, as the minister suggests, all entities are meeting land limit holdings, and groups such as the NFU still have serious reservations, then government must look at ways to make regulations more transparent.
The minister failed to provide acreage holdings involving those three entities – including ownership, leases or controlling interests. Let’s see the numbers and let Islanders judge for themselves if the law is being followed or contravened.
The Lands Protection Act (LPA) says no individual can own more than 1,000 acres of land and no corporation or business can own more than 3,000 acres. Those limits are restrictive for large potato operations, which must rotate crops every three years. They have to rent additional acres or swap fields with neighbours.
The province isn’t planning any LPA changes this fall but that might change because the standing committee has called representatives from Cavendish Farms, GEBIS and Vanco Farms to appear and provide details of their land holdings.
If these entities refuse to co-operate, legislation might be needed to force that disclosure. If they are in contravention of the law, legislation may be needed to force them to divest excess acres.
Minister Mitchell, like many Islanders, will be very interested to hear what comes out of the next committee hearing on land use.