(Kerry Campbell/CBC - image credit)
In a meeting that became testy at times, the head of the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission appeared before a committee of MLAs Thursday to explain how IRAC conducts investigations under the Lands Protection Act.
That investigation looked at how 890 hectares, or 2,200 acres, of land in the Bedeque and Summerside areas was transferred in 2019 from Brendel Farms Ltd. to another company without coming before cabinet for approval.
Thursday's meeting wasn't supposed to delve into the details of that investigation — but Green MLA Michele Beaton went there anyway, asking IRAC's CEO Scott MacKenzie why the commission didn't launch its own investigation before it was asked to do so by the minister.
"It's a false statement to say that we did not act," said MacKenzie, before reminding Beaton that he couldn't talk about the Brendel Farms case.
"I don't know how many times I can say this: I am not able to discuss that investigation," MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie started his presentation with a 15-minute preamble on how IRAC is independent from government, and on how its submissions to cabinet — including the Brendel report — are subject to cabinet confidentiality.
But he also explained to MLAs that, even when IRAC's investigations under the Lands Protection Act are not requested by or submitted to cabinet, they aren't shared with the public unless they lead to a public hearing — which hasn't happened in years.
No fines since 2014
Beaton pointed out that IRAC's website includes dozens of enforcement orders under the Lands Protection Act — but none posted after January of 2014.
MacKenzie explained that's when IRAC decided to take a more "co-operative" approach in enforcing the LPA.
"If you read those orders you will find that 90 per cent of them deal with what we will call extremely minor violations of the Lands Protection Act," MacKenzie explained.
MacKenzie said before he was appointed to the commission, companies would receive an automatic fine for things like missing a deadline to make their annual land ownership disclosure to IRAC.
Rather than issue fines, MacKenzie said, after January of 2014 "we had our staff proactively call these companies and deal with them in what we will call a co-operative way, to deal with these minor infractions."
While MacKenzie said the change only applies to minor infractions, there have been no enforcement orders under the LPA for the past seven years. He told reporters after the meeting that's because no orders have been necessary.
MacKenzie told the committee IRAC did not discuss this change in policy with the education minister of the day, the cabinet representative responsible for the commission.
Islanders don't need permission to buy land
MacKenzie also told the committee IRAC doesn't actively monitor the land holdings of individual Islanders, but relies on them to submit their holdings each year if they own more than 303 hectares, or 750 acres, as required under the act.
"We would need a monstrous staff and we don't do that."
When asked about what changes might be required in P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act, MacKenzie pointed out that, unlike corporations, individual Island residents have never had to apply to purchase land. He said that's the case whether property is acquired through a straight-up land purchase or through the purchase of controlling shares in a corporation that has its own land holdings.
Under P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act, corporations require cabinet permission to own more than two hectares (five acres) of land. Corporations are also limited to owning 1,214 hectares (3,000 acres), with allowances for leased and non-arable land pushing the limit up to 2,306 hectares or 5,700 acres.
While individual Islanders don't require permission to buy land, they still face limits: 1,000 acres, or 1,900 acres with allowances for leased and non-arable land.
IRAC must show its work, says Beaton
After the meeting Beaton said by not disclosing investigations it's conducted and by no longer posting enforcement orders under the LPA, IRAC is giving Islanders no way to see that the legislation is being enforced.
"That means that you don't know if your concerns are being addressed," she said.
"If you don't see the work being done, you don't think the work is being done, and then that leads to concerns about transparency."
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