Whose land is it, anyway?
Vast tracts of land in this municipality are targeted for change in designation from rural to prime agricultural. The implications go far beyond the landowner who will see their options greatly diminished by the stroke of a pen—but the consequences for others struggling to live in Prince Edward County, to pay taxes and water bills, may be just as profound. Yet this process is largely going unnoticed by most residents—unaware changes are coming that will reshape the entire community.
How your land is zoned determines what you can do with it. Wherever you live, the municipality— often guided by the hand of the province—determines the ways you can use the land under your feet. It is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful weapon municipalities wield.
Yet many residents don’t see the magnitude of this power until they try to build something or sell a portion of their land. It is surely the case that more tears are shed at planning meetings than any other gatherings at Shire Hall. It is here that landowners discover they don’t actually own their land. It’s more like shared custody with planning officials at Shire Hall—except they don’t help to pay the mortgage or the bills. They just tell you what you can do—and what you can’t.
Mostly, these incidents are isolated— prompted by an ambition that soon gets dashed. But once every generation or so, vast changes are conjured in meeting rooms and thrust upon a largely unsuspecting public— changes with the power to transform a community.
Such a change is underway now. It isn’t secret. County consultants have produced a long list of discussion and vision papers over the past couple of years, establishing a basis for the coming changes. The County has hosted a handful of open houses—a pair this past Monday. They have asked residents to participate. So far, there have been few takers.
This is unfortunate. Fundamental choices are being made on your behalf. It will be futile to complain and protest these changes after landowners’ rights have been taken away. It is clear the municipality has the power to make these changes. Further, it is not required to compensate landowners for the diminished value such changes may inflict.
It is another example of the province fixing an urban issue and imposing the solution on the County—whether it needs it or not. Provincial planners are correctly worried about urban sprawl—tracts of new homes displacing crops and farmland around Toronto and Ottawa.
So in 2014, Queen’s Park told municipalities they had to designate prime agricultural lands— to conserve them for crops—in their Official Plans. The County is currently undergoing a rewrite of its Official Plan.
As it stands now, the County proposes that thousands of acres of land will be newly designated as prime agricultural. Aside from questions about the validity of such designation on land capable of growing red cedar but little else, there is the more worrying issue of sterilizing this land for anything but crops.
Let’s look at one example. The current draft maps suggest that the land on the east side of Loyalist Parkway between Salem Road and County Road 19 in Ameliasburgh, will soon be designated prime agricultural land. That means crops only. However, a municipal water line runs through by the property, from Consecon to Carrying Place, connecting to the Quinte West water system.
On the west side of the Loyalist Parkway, dozens of country homes have been built, their owners paying taxes and contributing to the upkeep of the water system. If, however, the land across the road is designated as prime ag, the prospect of new homes on this land will die with the designation, along with the potential to leverage the water system that runs through the property. That means you and I pay more. The more we discourage and block residential development, the more each of us must pay for the services we receive from the municipality—roads, parks, waterworks, libraries, policing, firefighting.
These policies fundamentally change this community— making it less affordable and forcing some to uproot their lives and live elsewhere.
There is an important debate and discussion going on about the County’s direction and future. This story is being written, with or without you, into the Official Plan. Understanding the implications of the Land Evaluation and Area Review (LEAR) is an important first step in joining the conversation. At a minimum, landowners should understand how their rights are changing, and in some cases being diminished or erased. And why.
But the issue is bigger; it goes beyond these landowners. We need our community leaders to join in the dialogue. For once the Official Plan is printed and approved by Queen’s Park, there will be no going back. Not for a generation or more.
There are important arguments and issues on both sides—each worthy of debate, much more than can be found in these pages. But currently, we are sleepwalking toward a new regime that will alter this community— driven by concerns that appear to have little to do with Prince Edward County.
Perhaps one day we can decide for ourselves how best to protect the land in the interest of this community— rather than have it dictated by Queen’s Park. But to do so, we must participate.