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EDITORIAL: A lesson in fairness

['Ellen Hughes. ']
['Ellen Hughes. ']

Property rights received strong support in a P.E.I. Supreme Court decision last week involving a case where land was expropriated for the Cornwall bypass.  

The court also delivered a message that current legislation covering this issue is alarmingly outdated, and needs attention by the provincial legislature.
The court ruled that the owners of a therapeutic horse farm on a 30-hectare farm on the Cornwall Road should be paid an additional $295,000 in compensation for expropriated land.
This isn’t a minor price adjustment. It’s a significant 50 per cent increase to the original provincial offer. It’s a clear sign that the present system isn’t working. The owner felt her property was worth much more than what the province offered and the courts agreed with her.
It’s unfortunate whenever government seizes private property, even when the province argues it’s for the greater good to build a safe road.
The process seems flawed in other areas. Government decided on the final route last September and only then started negotiations with property owners. Shouldn’t initial discussions take place before a route is finalized to get an idea of opposition, and then tweak the route if necessary?
The Cornwall bypass has been on a priority list for years. A lot of preliminary consultation could have taken place instead of waiting until last fall.
When Ellen Hughes was informed her equestrian centre was directly in the path of the bypass highway, she wanted a deal as soon as possible so she could relocate and re-open her business.
The province’s low-ball offer forced her to argue her case in public opinion articles and letters to the editor. Government was well aware of her objections and the judge noted she was not a willing seller. It was one of the factors cited for the higher compensation order.
The province’s appraiser followed the legislation, which does not refer to the “market value” of any property being expropriated, only that a landowner is entitled to “due compensation.”
The confusing language should be amended in the Expropriation Act to bring it into line with federal and provincial legislation in other jurisdictions regarding appropriate compensation upon expropriation.
The appraiser also did not consider the fact this was an expropriation, not a negotiation between a willing buyer and seller looking for fair market value. The applicants are having their property forcibly taken from them and have little leeway to negotiate compensation, ruled the judge. It’s about time this fact was publicly noted and that government is duly warned about bullying private property owners in the future.
The farm owners are now satisfied but it took a year or more, a court case and a lot of angst to reach a settlement. Hughes said it was never about looking to make a profit on her land expropriation - only fair compensation.
Government was sent a message that it must deal fairly in similar cases going forward. The lessons learned here are invaluable for both province and property owners.


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