Zoning: Developers vs the Environment and the Public Interest

I was out on my bike yesterday riding along Huntmar Road and the Carp River, including land on the flood plain that the city has approved for housing development. Along parts of my route you could not even tell where the river is as everything is flooded alongside it.

As I passed the Corel Centre I recalled the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) rezoning battle for the proposed NHL arena lands.

My wife and I were amongst the official objectors to the proposal to rezone thousands of acres of high quality farmland for commercial development, including the arena. The result was unusual in that we essentially won the battle with the well funded developers. The arena and 100 acres, was allowed to be developed but the remaining thousands of acres were protected and conditions were put on the development to protect the surrounding land from development, including limiting sewage and other services to the size necessary for the arena and requiring the developer to pay for the Highway 417 interchange because it would only be serve the arena project.

The only reason we won this unusual victory was because of timing. The battle was waged during the short period that Ontario actually had a progressive government (Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government) that cared about protecting the environment and protecting farmland and our food supply. It was the dedicated officials from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) that carried the major weight of the battle, otherwise the various public interest groups would not have been able to compete with the financial resources of the developer.

Interestingly the quality of the farmland was not an issue at the hearings, although it was an issue in the developers PR campaign. Even as the developer was presenting to the OMB it’s consultants report, that agreed that the land was high quality agricultural land, the developer was waging a public relations campaign of lies to claiming the exact opposite of what they were saying to the OMB, a quasi-judicial board. They knew better that to try to lie to the OMB but lying to the public was no problem for them.

So why was I biking through all sorts of development adjacent to the arena. It is essentially because the rules favour the developers. A victory for the developers is always permanent. A victory for the environment and the public interest is always temporary.

Once developers get land zoned for development it can virtually never be taken away no matter what environmental or public interest arguments and evidence might be presented. To do so would take away their “property rights” and that has financial implications - it would be reducing the monetary value of their land.

However land that is zoned to protect it from development for environmental and public interests reasons has no such long term protection. The developers can keep trying again and again until the defenders of the environment and public interest can no longer afford to keep fighting. It appears that the environment and the public interest has no monetary value.

One of the most troubling cases involved land adjacent to the Trillium Woods in Kanata that was designated as environmentally protected and purchased by a developer (Minto). The City was forced to purchase the lands when the OMB basically ruled that because the land was owned by a developer the developer could do whatever it wanted with it.

This is the type of irrational thinking that leads to the argument that we have to destroy the environment or the economy will collapse. The fact that there would be no economy without the environment is irrelevant because there is no monetary value placed on the environment.

If we are going to have livable communities we have to place a value on the environment that we live in. Once land is designated as protected from development those environmental rights should have the same permanent status as developers rights to destroy the environment (and farmland) have.

1 comment:

Tim Webster said...

The suburbs of today are designed and build for cars and not people. Suburbs are a land usage and pollution disaster, simply because social cost and benefits of land usage are not taken into consideration. The US sub prime crises is in reality also a housing crises which can be best solved by redevelopment, not new development. Developing of new land well discarding existing developed land simply results in either the old development or the isolate new development being in practical terms discarded and worthless.

Suburbs are gobbling up the best farm land, because the social cost of losing this farm land forever is simply not reflected in the land price. To reflect this cost a land usage transitioning tax needs to be charged when ever land is transformed from natural wilderness or farm usage to urban or industrial usage. The land usage transition tax should be 8 times the selling price for farm or forestry usage. Also land in its natural green state, whether it is forests, farmland or parks within a city needs to be taxed a much low rate to reflects its social benefit.

Property value taxes do not accurately reflect the social value of land. High value land enjoying access to social transit services are under valued. As a result people sit on this land preventing redevelopment. This prevents redevelopment of this high value land, insuring continued low property values and denying cost effective higher density redevelopment. Many more people would have an opportunity to enjoy access to transit if this was not the case. Land near transit should be taxed based on the access to transit it provides. This land near transit should taxed at the same rate regardless whether it is 30 story high rise condo, or a parking lot. Height restrictions near transit are senseless. Green space regulations however do make sense.

History is about to repeat is itself.

Much of the hardship suffered in the great depression was the result of incredibly destructive land practices we would not even dream of today.
One of the farming practices of that time was to burn the stubble - the plant stalks left after harvesting. At this time, all fields were planted back to a crop and burning made it easier to plant. But, burning destroyed the organic matter that would help the soil. One of the favorite farm implements of the time was called a "one-way". This implement would turn the stubble under, saving the organic matter, but it left the soil exposed to the hot sun and dry winds.

To Quote the author.
We here in Southwest Kansas have learned to live with "Mother Nature" rather than fighting her!