Does Land over Landings have a conflict of interest?

This sign has been on the Pickering lands for years. Was it placed there by concerned tax payers or a tenant farmer hoping to continue to rent the airport land at a deep discount at the tax payers expense?

 

 

Land over landings (LOL for short) advertises itself as a grassroots agriculture and conservation group. On its web site, in the press, at every opportunity, it goes out of its way to broadcast that there is no business case for a new airport in Pickering. It attacks experts and politicians alike that dare suggest that Pickering airports time has come. At the same time the three of its executive and many of its members are living on/ leasing the land on which the airport will be built at a deep discount compared to nearby private land.  Isn’t this a conflict of interest?  Is soliciting public donations and grants as an “citizens movement” while not disclosing the financial benefits you and you members are receiving appropriate ?

In an opinion piece published in the Durham region paper in January, LOLs Chair woman accused the Mayor of Pickering and the Chair of Durham region of misleading the public about the jobs expected to be created by the new airport.  Not once did she disclose that herself and other LOL executives are benefiting from and living on the airport lands.  Isn’t LOL doing exactly what it accuses others of doing?  So how did this strange situation come to be and why is the press and our elected officials not calling it out?

Properties on the Pickering lands have been leased by the Government of Canada to residential, farm and commercial tenants since 1975, just after the completion of the land expropriation. Initially many of these tenants where the original land owners who had their land expropriated by the federal government to build a future airport.

As time pasted, these tenants formed multiple groups to lobby for their tenant rights and, after the decision to delay the airport, for the return of the expropriated land. The early groups such as “People Not Planes” and “VOCAL” where created by original land owners and supporters who wanted to buy their land back. The land banking of the expropriations for future development created a sense of injustice that fueled public support for these original groups.  Over the years, the land leases have turned over and today are almost completely leased out to newer commercial and individual tenants at deep discounts to market rates.

In 2005 a new lobby group was formed by these tenants called Land over landings (LOL for short). Today, few of its members and executives seem to be original land owners, but LOL claims to inherit the spirit of earlier anti-airport groups. At first glance this provides a sense of legitimacy and explains the tolerance for their inherent conflict of interest.   But a deeper look reveals a distinct change in presentation and content as well as tone. Gone is the demand to sell the land back to its original owners, along with constructive engagement and the festive air of activism that included street theater and sit ins.  Also missing is the opposition to airports, and air travel in general that drove the earlier groups.

On its web site the groups stated goal is:

“To stop all plans for an airport or other development on the federal lands of north Pickering”

LOL and it’s chairwoman, Mary Delaney who started renting her part of the airport lands back in the 1980s, has even gone on the record in support of other airport development. Just as long as it isn’t directly on the Pickering lands. In addition to becoming a cheerleader for maximizing the Pearson airport monopoly at the expense of local residents, LOL is advocating rebuilding smaller GA airports closer to residential areas into jet airports.  This included the city owned Oshawa airport, and Markham airport, a small private GA airport owned by the Thomson corporation to the west of the Pickering airport lands. The jet aircraft noise issue this would create for the residents of Stouffville, Markham and Oshawa appear to be of no concern.

The reason for this shift may be two fold, first the original land owners are almost gone and second, the enormous value of the land the tenants are now leasing. Less than a 40 minutes drive from downtown Toronto , the thousands of acres of land LOLs members are now leasing from the Canadian tax payer is estimated to be worth north of one Billion dollars.

How much is comparable agriculture land being leased for in southern Ontario? In 2014 Ontario ag ministry’s farm business analyst John Molenhuis was quoted as saying the rent ranged up to $350 per acre for top-quality land.

Sharpen your pencils

Pickering airport land lease rates averaged only $40 an acre a year in 2017, and have been at this rate for the last 20 years. Even assuming half of Molenhuis rate, say $175 an acre, as the market rate, The financial self interest of the tenants in stopping the airport seems straight forward. Over the years this appears to equate to millions of dollars in land lease savings, which would be giving these tenant farmers a huge advantage compared to other farmers leasing privately owned land nearby.

 

Canada is one of the largest agricultural producers and exporters in the world. Only 5% of Canada is farmland and %10 of that is Class 1 farmland. The majority of this is in Southern Ontario as indicated in brown above. Almost every development project in Souther Ontario involves taking class 1 farmland out of use. The Pickering lands are no exception. But why does LOL advocate primarily to protect the “Class 1” Pickering lands? Self interest is never discussed by the group but is it an important motivation?

The obvious questions remain unasked. Is each tenant receiving $135 dollar an acre in subsidies? Is this a taxable benefit, or is it tax free?  Have they been subleasing public land and buildings to other tenants and pocketing the difference? None of this is discussed on LOLs website. How much rent and local tax revenue is lost with this special deal for a select few tenant farmers? How much additional tax burden is being carried by other local municipal tax payers to pay for the surrounding roads and services? What do the rest of Ontario’s farmers, who are producing 99.99% of the provincial agriculture output while paying market rates and normal taxes, think of this special deal ?

The city of Pickering plans on spending $150,000 in 2018 on a public-engagement initiative partially to defend against LOLs well funded anti-Pickering airport campaign.  With the land leases rates expected to be reset this April for a 10 year period and a multi-million dollar financial windfall of cheap land leases at stake, will this be enough?

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