Land Over Landings Billion dollar ask of the Canadian tax payer.

Two consultants working for Land Over Landings , a lobby group formed in 2005, presents the groups “AG Study” including  a request for the Canadian tax payer to hand over a multi- billion dollar land asset plus fund a $58 million upfront investment plus $7 million a year in public funding.  Note the images behind the speaker from a 1970s citizens group, part of LOLs effort to link thier brand to that earlier movement.

The recently released Land Over Landings ( LOL for short)  “AG study”, is billed as a pathway to prosperity.  But whose prosperity, why is LOL making this pitch, at what cost and who is paying? 

The why is simple enough, LOL is a lobby group for residents and a handful of tenant farmers privileged to live on or around a public park and land reserve north east of Toronto. Their “AG study” document is a blueprint of how this group envisions pursuing a rural lifestyle on our public lands. The Canadian tax payer is expected to fund LOLs vision. Indeed the document, cloaked in kittens and apple pie, describes an almost boundless sense of entitlement to tax payer resources and funds. 

Nicely timed for the election cycle, LOL is taking the opportunity to ask that a new federal public agency be created just to execute its vision. They are asking that this agency be seeded with a billion dollars worth of public land assets including a say in controlling parts of the newly created Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP). No estimate is provided for this agency (annual cost or staffing) but it mentions the need to invest $58 million in capital plus fund a federal research and innovation centre at an annual cost of $7 million, employing 98 people. No mention of why this center is needed given that the Ontario government already funds dozens of such centers in the province in a $1.5 billion dollar program in cooperation with a number of colleges and universities.

LOL’s document lays out six scenarios, each incomplete in form and cost but providing a general vision on how millions of tax payer dollars could be used to bolster and develop agricultural businesses in north Pickering.  One part of the land LOL wants to grab for this new venture is a billion dollar land reserve currently owned by the Canadian federal government and earmarked for economic development including a soon to be needed new airport.   At the heart of LOL’s document is an assumption that public land, painfully assembled and set aside for the new Pickering airport and a park, will now be redirected for its purposes. The loss in future aviation capacity would then have to be made up by increasing capacity at other Torontos airports with the associated billion dollar costs.

Although scarcely mentioned, LOL imagines that a new government funded custodian agency would be created to control up to 30,000 acres of public and private land and implement its vision by handing out 30 year land leases with right to renew and no cancellation clauses. No budget is included for this agency but it would play a critical roll in disbursement of government funds and land. Each land lease is expected to be worth millions. A 649 lotto like win for the chosen few? Does LOL see itself as this custodian?

Currently 35 tenant farmers produce crops worth $3.8 million a year, on 6700 of the 9600 acres federal land reserve in question including the 5000 acres set aside for the construction of Pickering airport and surrounding economic zone. LOL also makes references to expanding its vision to include other lands, including the publicly owned RNUP ( Parks Canada), privately owned Duffins Rouge agriculture preserve and creating a new agricultural reserve it calls the north Pickering farmland assembly. 30,000 acres in total.

The above privately owner land in Norh Pickering is not adjacent to the public airport lands but is part of LOLs vision of a 30,000 acre agricultural reserve. This picture is from the current zoning of the area with large farms blocked in colour.

What LOL calls the  “North Pickering farmland assemble” is of particularly note. It appears to be an attempt to create a new land reserve. The reader is led to believe  that thousands of acres of privately owned farmland now being profitablely managed by private farmers are part of an existing agricultural reserve. Production from these farms are then counted and controlled by this new “custodian” agency. Are these private farmers really going to allow themselves to be dictated to, to be told what crops to grow on their own land, by this new agency?  This has a whif of a command control agricultural economy.

Given the billion dollar ask, the economic value added return, even with rose colored glasses on, is tiny. Even the  GDP bump from a well run RNUP could outstrip what is envisioned. It is a fraction of what the current economic development plan has in mind in terms of both jobs and revenue. It also appears to be depending on perpetual public subsidies and assets to boost a select few tenant farmer run businesses over hard working private farmers in Pickering and other Ontario agriculture regions. This type of government economic intervention is ripe for favoritism and corruption.

Who picks the lucky few to receive agricultural leases and will they grow what is most profitable or will the custodian agency dictate types of crops?

So who will be the favored few to benefit from this billion dollar ask of the Canadian tax payer? Three of LOL’s executives currently live on the lands in question, including the chairwoman. Also benefiting will be many of LOL’s members who have moved to the region over the years to escape the big city, perhaps initially unaware that an airport has been in the regions plan for 40 years and will soon to be built next door. This massive land grab is to be handed out to the chosen with 30 year rolling leases with no out clause. With “the agency” able to set below market rates and the ability to sublease, it will be equal to winning Lotto 649 for each new lease holder.  They would all become instant millionaires, assuming they are not already. 

Who loses? Its a long list :

– Hundreds of private farmers and agricultural tourism in Pickering and other parts of Southern Ontario will be hard pressed to compete against a bottomless pit of public money.  

-Private farmers in north Pickering will lose control of what they can grow on thier own farms, some have been family own and operated for generations.

– Millions of residents of the Toronto region will be hurt by an inefficient and potentially less safe aviation system, restricting our economy and our freedom of movement. 

– Our environment and watershed could be polluted by some of the intensive farming methods envisioned. 

– Parks Canada will lose control of large parts of the RNUP, with unknown impacts on visitors and tourism revenue.

– Toronto’s air quality will be impacted by the waste of hundreds of tons of fuel a day and the increased green house gas emissions caused by the resulting congestion at nearby Billy Bishop and Pearson airports.  

– Residents around Pearson and Billy Bishop airports will be hurt by increased jet noise levels and road traffic congestion. 

– But perhaps the biggest loser of all will be the Canadian tax payer who is expected to give billions of dollars in assets and provide tens or even hundreds of millions in funding to a handful of beneficiaries. 

LOL’s vision makes no sense in the bigger scheme of either economic or agricultural development. You would think that LOL’s conflict of interest in opposing an airport and funding its vision with public funds is obvious and would make its proposal a non-starter. But LOL, founded in 2005, has neatly co-opted the image of a 1970s citizens group using kittens and apple pie to become well funded and able lobbyists with deep political ties.  They are being cheered on by billion dollar aviation interests bent on maintaining the current monopoly at Pearson airport.  

This report is representative of LOL’s narrow self interest and what it doesn’t say is as important as what it does say.   It benefits a few local residents at the expense of the interests and needs of millions of Canadians who will be hurt by this proposal. For that reason this documents sole value maybe to lay bare the LOL memberships self interest. Only by confronting its narrow narrative and views can LOL hope to survive and move into the future. Perhaps in the end this sole searching can bring into focus its role, if it has one, in agriculture in and around the new Pickering airport and on the thousands of acres of land set aside as a park.

 Should farming be allowed at all inside a national park or should the land be allowed to grow back into the forest it once as? Many Canadian airports encourage private farming right up to the runways edge, why not Pickering? Is the 1000+ acres of historic and natural features already set aside inside the Pickering airports lands enough? This is the real discussion that needs to take place. But this does not and never will need a new government agency to act as a middleman, or massive amounts of public funds to accomplish. Farmers do not want or like to be part of a command and control economy.

 The final question, is any politician so easily hoodwinked or seduced by LOL’s self serving plan worthy of the public trust? 

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