Complex land decisions must be based on values, not data

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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April 18, 2003: Land is not as important to the economy as in the past. To homesteaders land was everything. Today's economy can soar, the stock market can fly -- and plummet -- on a digital bubble. Yet we spend more energy, time and money
debating land use issues than ever before. Ontario's Smart Growth Panels are the most recent effort to guide land use planning as competing opportunities and pursuits swell with a rising population.

A public forum on complex land use issues sponsored by the Ontario Rural Council this week indicated that more information is in the works to inform our decisions about land. Jim Peden and Jeff Dean of GIS Spatial Solutions demonstrated that technology is ballooning information possibilities. Global imaging technology is helping local communities understand their fit into the larger economy and environment.

But more information will not simplify decisions about land use.

First, land use decisions can be informed by more and more data, but such decisions are primarily about competing interests. While more data can help to make decisions, it is just as likely to enshrine specific interests, as it is to develop a consensus solution.

Second, whose data can we trust? In the 70s, when Ontario created an Environmental Assessment Act to deal with Ontario Hydro's desire to criss-cross farmland with high voltage transmissions lines, we opted for mandatory environmental assessments, to be completed, and paid for, by the proponents of big new projects.

A presentation at The Ontario Rural Council (TORC) forum by Jim Mahone from the University of Guelph demonstrated the effectiveness of facilitated workshops for bringing out all the concerns of a broad stakeholder group about a proposed land use change—a waste management facility. A long list of concerns about the waste management site emerged. Mahone invited participants to vote for the most important points. The result? A large majority favored an independent environmental and economic assessment. We no longer trust proponent-prepared environmental assessments.

The emergence of global imaging data for local communities and facilitated workshops for all stakeholders is a response to the need to balance economic interests with equally important environmental, community and social values.

Debbie Crandall from the citizens group, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, brought the TORC forum an example of environmental, community and social values coming into their own. Recent legislation will protect much of the Moraine from development.

In an Ontario with a growing population, the tension around "the people need to go somewhere" is here to stay. But the process of how to make land-use decisions is maturing. A balance is emerging between the economic drivers of our time and the environmental, community and social values that make life worth savoring.

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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.