It was right there on the cover of the 1990 Visitors’ Guide to P.E.I.: a photo of one of the Island’s most picturesque, and most controversial, views.
It was land at Cousin’s Shore, where the Irishtown Road comes down from Kensington and meets Highway 20, and it would cause a scandal when it was sold to a developer only a few years later.
While looking at the 2007 Visitors’ Guide, David Sisam, a Toronto architect who has a cottage on P.E.I., noticed a particular ad. It was a photo of the same land at Cousin’s Shore.
“It’s a picture that is probably (from) about 1985. Because if they took it now it would have all these cottage lots scattered over it,” said Sisam. “It’s got to the point where tourist brochures are having to lie or misrepresent what the Island is.”
Sisam is one of many people on P.E.I. who say the government should have taken action long ago to make sure the Island’s coastal landscape isn’t destroyed by cottage subdivisions.
But this isn’t exactly a new concern. As historian Harry Baglole points out, P.E.I.’s governance has been marked by the land issue ever since the province was founded.
“Land issues and Island politics have always gone together, hand in glove,” said Baglole.
In the 19th century, Island settlers waged a long and difficult struggle against their absentee landlords back in Britain. Though they eventually won out and gained ownership of their farms, Island farmers remember the past and are still suspicious of the public telling them how to use their land, said Baglole.
“Pushing for enlightened land use policy in P.E.I. comes up against the same entrenched conservative instincts as pushing for gun control legislation in the United States,” he said.
But the push for policy continues. Last summer, Sisam gave a talk as part of the Victoria Playhouse summer lecture series, titled ‘Whose Shore is it? The Uncertain Future of Prince Edward Island’s Coastal Landscape.’
He may be a cottager himself, with a summer home near Malpeque since 1988, but he’s passionate about the P.E.I. land issue.
“People aren’t noticing, and slowly but surely (the coast) will end up like New Jersey if something isn’t done,” he said.
Despite a series of commissions, roundtables and reports dating back to the first Royal Commission on the Land in 1973, government has failed to create planning strategies to deal with the steady tide of development, says Sisam.
“It’s (a lack of) political will. Right now, the (provincial) planning staff do not have an adequate framework with which to plan and make decisions . . . No one really is saying what the coastline of Prince Edward Island should look like in 15 or 20 years. It just happens.”
It’s that lack of vision that frustrates Jack Saunders, manager of the P.E.I. provincial planning branch. He and his staff are supposed to set policy for land use but he said they don’t do much of it.
“We don’t have a plan of any sort that tells you ahead of time what you might expect to do. Land uses are established at the time of subdivisions,” he said.
The provincial government approves subdivision lots for most of the province, but Charlottetown, Summerside and 29 of about 75 Island municipalities have their own land use plans.
The Lands Protection Act of 1982 states that non-residents who want to own more than five acres of total land, or more than 165 feet of shore frontage, must receive permission from the Executive Council (the premier and his cabinet). The Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC) is responsible for examining the applications from non-residents and sends its recommendations to the provincial government. But almost all of the non-resident applications get approved year after year.
“I could put in a tire-recycling plant or an organic farming outfit or . . . there’s just no control. There’s no zoning,” said Saunders. Being a planner on P.E.I. is a frustrating job, he said.
“The tradition has been the individual gets what he wants and the government’s in the business of getting re-elected, so they keep giving the individuals what they want.”
The issue of individual versus collective rights is at the very heart of land use in this province.
With no rules on development, people can do whatever they want, says Sisam.
“(Say) a farmer owns land on the ocean and he’s worked hard, and he says, ‘This is going to be my reward, because farming isn’t going well now, I’m going to subdivide the piece of property right on the ocean.’ And there’s pressures to do that, obviously. But without a vision for what the coastline should be, this just happens on a piecemeal basis.”
With the way farming has been going, farmers on P.E.I. are keener than ever to sell their land, says John Cousins, a farmer in Park Corner.
“We’re like the Piping Plover. We’re a dying breed,” said Cousins, who’s also on the board of the Lucy Maud Montgomery Land Trust.The trust’s mandate is to preserve the scenic agricultural land along P.E.I.’s North Shore by finding alternatives to development. Cousins sold the development rights to part of his land to the land trust, so he could keep farming it. The land trust has bought the development rights to about 130 acres of land between French River and Sea View. But the price of land has been steadily rising and the trust is having trouble raising enough money to buy development rights. If buying five acres of land or less, the average price per acre for all types of land nearly tripled between 1994, when the land trust was founded, and 2004. It rose from about $16,500 to about $43,000.The trust has been petitioning the provincial and federal governments for support.
The previous Conservative government all but ignored the land use issue, said Saunders.
“Within the planning side of things here we’ve always said we need a champion at the political level who would take it on and fight for it.”
The new Liberal government says they are now stepping up to the plate. The government will appoint a new Commissioner on Land Use and Local Governance before the end of the summer, said Carolyn Bertram, minister of communities, cultural affairs and labour.
“The commissioner will be holding public hearings and there will be lots of opportunities for Islanders to provide feedback,” said Bertram. “This is a very important issue for Islanders, and for non-residents as well, and we’re hoping that this will be a good step forward.”
The commissioner will also examine previous studies and strategies on land use and will present a report in 2009, she said.
It could be a breath of fresh air for a province that virtually ignored a 604-page report from the 1990 Royal Commission on the Land, said Douglas Boylan.
Boylan was the chair of the commission, which spent two years researching land issues before giving 232 recommendations to the government. When that report came out the people of P.E.I. were ready for government to take action, he said.
“Nobody likes regulators. But I think there was a sense that there was some
expertise needed,” said Boylan.
Boylan suspects that people still care about the land issue but that after the new commissioner is done his work, they “will expect a game plan.” Among the many observations and statistics in the 1990 commission report, Boylan and his team pointed out that there were thousands of cottage lots being created on P.E.I. that weren’t being built on.
From 1973 to 1987, 3,500 more cottage lots were created than building permits issued, which suggests that there are more subdivisions going up than there is demand for cottages, says Sisam. The number of cottages within view of his own, he said, has gone from five to 15 in the past 20 years. A quick drive around the P.E.I. countryside makes it obvious how fast cottages are going up. “It’s almost scary,” said Boylan, who questions whether tourists still value the unspoiled vistas that P.E.I. offers.
Cousins sees more cottages every year but thinks tourists do come here to see the scenery and the land.
“Twenty years ago, if you’d have told me how much tourism, and this viewscape and agriculture, goes hand in hand, I’d have laughed at you. But when you’re out here watching (tourists) in the fields taking pictures of my cows, or laying on the ditch in the road on their bellies trying to get the barley heads to line up with the sun out over the Lake of Shining Waters, you kind of realize, well, maybe there is a little bit to this.”
He said he’s come to realize how precious his land is.
“Years ago, I never saw the view that was here because I was here all the time, but it’s a little different now. It’s starting to disappear.”