| Jun 09, 2005


Feature article, June 9, 2005, 2005

Feature article June 9, 2005

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Whose Land is it, anyway? Part 2

In part one of this series, (Frontenac News May 19, available at Newsweb.ca), we took a historical look at the concept of land in this region, from pre-colonial times through settlement and the era of the family farm. In part 2, we will consider two currents of thinking about land that sometimes come into conflict. One is a concern over property rights, as it is being promoted by MP Scott Reid on a legislative level, and by the Lanark Landowners on a case-by-case political level. The other is the concept of stewardship, promoted by Conservation Authorities on a government level, and by groups like the Frontenac Environmental Partnership, land trust groups, and others.

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The very idea of private property confers rights on the owner of that property. Owners of land have the power to prevent others from building on that land, hunting on that land, cultivating crops, or doing a variety of other things. They can post Do Not Trespass signs, which provide a legal barrier to entry onto the land.

But land is owned at the pleasure of the Crown, as represented by the government, and there are limits to what landowners can prevent.

The government can expropriate private land for a highway, an airport or other purposes. Many property owners only own the surface rights to their land, leaving themselves open to a variety of incursions by prospectors, who can stake the land and will then have the right to fell trees, dig trenches, and perhaps start a mine on the land.

A case in point is the situation recently faced by Ron and Elva Price in Central Frontenac. They have lived on and farmed a piece of land for over 50 years, but a mining department official ruled that they could be forced to sell their farm to a mining company for twice its market value. The operative word is forced. Fortunately for Ron and Elva, the decision was eventually reversed, but the very concept flies in the face of the concept of property rights.

Land ownership also bestows rights to do certain things on ones land, such as build a house, pasture animals, dig a garden, put in a pond, plant trees, remove trees, etc. These rights are limited, however, and there are those who argue that the limitations on these rights have been increasing to the point where the landowners have becomes victims of government bureaucracies that have devalued land ownership.

Meanwhile, land is a commodity, and the assigned market value on a piece of property is used to determine municipal tax rates.

All of this has proved too much for many people, and has sparked the support for groups like the Lanark Landowners Association and affiliated groups throughout Eastern and Southwestern Ontario. Their slogan sums it up, Back off government, get off my land.

Stewardship:

The idea that land ownership carries with it an implicit responsibility to care for that land, to be a steward of the land, is sometimes seen as conflicting with property rights. There is an old Algonquin idea that says all collective decisions pertaining to land should be made in the interest of the next seven generations. In terms of private land, this would require landowners to see themselves as owners of land in trust for future generations rather than for themselves.

Many land stewardship activities, such as those that are advocated by Stewardship Ontario, a volunteer- based organisation with administrative support from the Ministry of Natural Resources, are based on initiatives on the part of landowners to enhance wetlands on or adjacent to their properties, practice sustainable forestry, etc. These activities are generally not controversial for property rights advocates because they are voluntary, encouraging stewardship as a feature of land ownership.

Stewardship has also been taken on by cottage associations in recent years. No longer concerned solely with organising regattas on the lake during summers, these associations have developed broader concerns, from taxation issues to environmental concerns on their lakes. As property owners associations they reflect the collective concerns of a specific group of landowners, many of whom are seasonal residents that use their land mainly for recreational purposes.

This is the source of a potential conflict. Someone who invests a lot of money in a lakefront cottage or a year- round retirement home, but whose income is derived elsewhere, would see their land interests best served by minimising the land use of their neighbours.

An unlikely case in point is wind farms. For people concerned about the environment, any economically viable wind power project, as a replacement for coal burning power production, would seem to be eminently desirable. Nonetheless, there was a recent story in the Globe and Mail about a farmer in Huron County who is hoping to put up windmills on his farm. He is facing opposition from neighbouring recreational property owners because of the noise the windmills may make and the effect of the windmills on their view of the countryside. There are similar concerns being expressed over planned wind generation on Wolfe Island.

It would be unfair to discount all stewardship efforts by Lake Associations on the basis that waterfront property owners are more concerned about their long-term recreational pursuits that on the health of the planet. To a great extent they have come to the positions they are pursuing by recognising what has happened with lake development in other places, and as they develop lake plans they have been careful to consider the needs of the commercial operators on their lakes. Living on water, they also recognise that anything that takes place on a watershed has long-term impacts further downstream.

There is still a fundamental difference between two communities that share the land in rural eastern Ontario.

There are families who have, for generations, derived some or all of their living from the land, whether by farming, logging, milling wood, trapping, or other means. For them the land represents their livelihood, and is something to be maintained.

For families who have recreational properties, and for the increasing number who have converted their recreational properties into permanent retirement homes, land represents peace and tranquility, and is something to be preserved.

In the final instalment of Whose Land is it, Anyway? a range of existing limitations on landowners abilities to exercise their dominion over their land will be examined, from the most obvious and easiest to justify, such as burning bans, to more indirect and controversial limitations, such as prohibitions on trailers.

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