Tax exempt conservancy land is a serious threat to Manitoulin

To the Expositor:

Residents of Manitoulin Island feel like “cellophane people” when we read articles written by the likes of Bob Barnett of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. Again Mr. Barnett lobbies the Minister of Natural Resources, Mr. Michael Gravelle, for our tax dollars to restore Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) funding to EBC’s coffers so that he can finance the appraisals and legal work required to realize this apparent obsession of achieving the international target of 17 percent of Manitoulin Island as conservation land. Not once does Mr. Barnett express any consideration or concern regarding the resulting impact on Island Communities if this 17 percent of Manitoulin’s tax base is removed. Mr. Barnett appears more concerned with protection of the “tempered forest” than the people who have homes on this island. He seems oblivious to the fact that these are the people who so carefully nurture the natural resources, and regularly pay taxes as expected of any responsible, civic-minded Canadians. Remember, it is our tax dollars that Mr. Barnett so desperately needs to pay for his appraisals and legal fees.

Mr. Barnett, can people’s lives and dreams be so easily destroyed to permit trees space to grow? Do people have value only to contribute financially to the attainment of the stated objective—acquisition of 17 percent of Manitoulin to fulfill international conservation obligations?

On Tuesday, December 17, 2012, Mr. Mike Mantha MPP hosted a teleconferencing session for Manitoulin Municipal Representatives with MNR contact Eric Bianchini. Most Manitoulin municipalities participated. Although municipal representatives asked for clarification of many issues regarding conservancy land “tax exempt” designations, not all answers received were encouraging.

Firstly, a municipal representative requested clarification of “the process” by which MPAC receives direction that a property has been “designated tax exempt conservancy land.” The MNR spokesperson stated that the MNR has complete authority to declare conservancy land 100 percent tax exempt. He acknowledged there are accepted criteria for this designation: 1. a wetland, 2. an ANSI (Area of Natural and Scientific Interest), 3. an Endangered Species Habitat, and 4. a Community Conservation Area, but admitted that these criteria are rarely considered when determining a property’s “tax exempt” status. He informed that conservation land applications to the MNR by large conservancies such as the EBC and NCC are usually ratified automatically without any required inspection of the property by MNR officials.

Municipal representatives also asked if the MNR or any government agency performs “impact studies” on Manitoulin municipalities to determine the possible short and long-term effects of MNR designations of large tracts of Manitoulin properties as tax exempt. Sadly, the answer “no” offered yet more proof of a general lack of concern for the plight of rural communities; communities challenged by the increasing burden of providing the following much-needed services for local residents: policing, hospitals, ambulances, libraries, social services and housing, recreational facilities, road construction and maintenance, and homes for the aged. Considering that the average population of seniors on Manitoulin is much higher than the provincial average, and the average wage of islanders is much lower, how much longer can Manitoulin communities continue to carry the wealthy EBC “tax exempt” landowners’ share of the tax burden?

Another disappointing reply was received from the MNR spokesperson when he was asked if a review process was in place to reassess a designated property’s “tax exempt” status. The municipal representatives were informed that the landowner was required to re-apply to the MNR each year to retain the “tax exempt” status, but no re-assessment based on criteria for “tax exemption” was ever performed. The MNR informed that the process of designation of Conservancy Land as “tax exempt” is an automatic order to MPAC, as authorized by the Ministry of Finance regulations. Municipal representatives are never invited to participate in this process. The MNR designate advised the municipal representatives to take their perceived problems regarding this process to Mr. Dwight Duncan, Ontario Minister of Finance, to seek recourse for concerns. He stated that the Ministry of Finance was the only ministry with authority to change the assessment regulations to address inequities judged to unfairly impact on Northern rural communities.

In support of Manitoulin municipalities, Mr. Mike Mantha, MPP, after conferring with Mr. Ken Noland, chairperson of the Manitoulin Municipal Association, agreed to request a meeting of MMA representatives and the Ontario Minister of Finance to question the MNR’s absolute authority to declare tax exempt lands without some requirement for an impact study to assess the effects of such decisions on each specific community. The MMA awaits his response.

In closing, let’s be realistic, Mr. Barnett of EBC, consider the possibility of the Greater Toronto Area communities losing 17 percent of their tax base. Would this not make it rather difficult for these communities to provide the necessary funding of essential services that you and your neighbours enjoy? Are we, the residents of Manitoulin Island, merely “cellophane people,” not really visible in southern Ontario’s big picture of a Future Ontario? Also, Islanders feel it is not acceptable to lobby for tax dollars under the guise of improving tourism to the island, unless all tax exempt conservancy properties have open access to the general public. This would promote opportunities for all residents and tourists to the Island to enjoy the natural beauty of these large tracts, rather than merely establishing large private playgrounds for wealthy eco-tourists from southern Ontario, and Europe. The latter, unfortunately, is the public perception of the EBC Conservancy Movement on Manitoulin Island.

Wayne L. Bailey