Conservation Reserves - A Lost Opportunity for the new Municipal Government Act
It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me when the proposed amendments to the Municipal Government Act came out (Bill 21 - Modernized Municipal Government Act). Included in the amendments was a new type of reserve, the Conservation Reserve. Finally, I thought, municipalities had a tool in their primary legislation that would allow them to protect environmental values!
And then I read section (2) ... Sigh.
Let's back up.
'Reserves', in the context of the Municipal Government Act, are lands that a municipality can require from development schemes in order to provide the necessities of a whole community - schools, utilities, and such (no requirement for the developer to build the schools, roads, and utilities, just make land available for them). We have long had an 'Environmental Reserve' in the Act, but its name does not match its function; it is really just about land that is too steep, flood-prone, etc. to be developed.
So now here comes an actual conservation reserve in the proposed Modernized Municipal Government Act that is aimed at protecting "environmentally significant features." So far, so good (I'm sending excited emails to my colleagues). But section (2) requires that the municipality pay full fair market value for it.
In a practical sense, this kills the tool.
At best, it adds something that municipalities already had - before they could buy land at full market value for conservation but had no money to do so, and now they could buy land at full market value but they have no money to do so. La plus ça change.
However, it's actually worse than that. The legislation would require market value to be calculated at the point when the land has reached its maximum speculative value, meaning the municipality would have no ability to strategically purchase conservation reserve lands at a lower cost even if they had the money. If a conservation-minded landowner wanted only partial compensation, the legislation leaves no room for that. If a municipality wanted to identify and secure conservation lands in advance, they can't because this tool can only be used at the time of subdivision (barn door closed, horse well across the meadow). And what is an 'environmentally significant feature'...? That is up to the "opinion of the subdivision authority."
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about thing about the way the conservation reserve was conceived is the financial mindset behind it. Public safety, education, schools, roads - we see these as societal needs, and we pool our money to make sure they are available to all citizens. But clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat - if you want those, show me the money. The Municipal Government Act requires school reserves and municipal reserves and lands for roads to be given without compensation when a development goes in; reserves for ecological conservation must be bought on the open market, as if conservation lands have some sort of economic might to draw on (like putting Mozart in a mixed martial arts ring).
Despite the pretense of enabling progressive conservation action, the most likely impact of this amendment will be a creeping expectation of full market payment for all manner of conservation or environmental requirement.
It is a puzzling contradiction. Provincial legislation and policy has increasingly recognized the need to empower municipalities with regard to conservation because they are the front lines of land use. For all manner of regional planning, environmental management, and conservation strategy, municipalities are framed in the role of implementation player. New but wholly impotent tools will simply frustrate this expectation.