Conservation lands hurting municipal tax revenue

Ken Kellar

A longstanding provincial program is causing headaches in some area municipalities, and it’s back on the radar.
At a regular teleconference meeting of the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) on May 6, the NOMA board added the issue of conservations lands and their effect on municipal tax base to their issue tracker.
The issue at hand is the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program (CLTIP), which was put into effect in 1998 and replaced the former Conservation Lad Tax Reduction Program (CLTRP). Under the newer CLTIP, landowners who turn their vacant and undeveloped land into conservation land receive a 100 per cent property tax exemption on eligible portions of their properties.
“They’re giving people free taxes on their lands if they sign it over for conservation, but the townships get nothing out of it,” explained Doug Hartnell, who serves both as a Councillor for the Township of Dawson as well as the member of the NOMA board who is following the issue.
“They get no taxes. There are I think 91 properties in the township of Dawson that we get no taxes on, and the government encourages this. I have nothing against conservation lands but it’s hurting the townships.”
Not every piece of land is eligible for the program, and there are restrictions put upon any piece of land that does receive conservation status, such as limiting the reasons why trees on the land can be removed. However, Hartnell explained that even with the limit to what can be done on the land, the cost to the municipalities still exist.
“You pay no taxes but you can’t do anything on the property,” he said.
“But these properties get all the services from the townships. If a drainage ditch goes through the property, all the other participants in the drainage ditch have to pay when the ditch is dug and every time the ditch is maintained, and yet these properties pay nothing, so the other people have to pick up the price.”
“We grade all the roads through all these properties and we snowplow and we do the ditches and we do everything, yet we collect no taxes off these lands,” Hartnell continued.
Part of the problem, Hartnell said, could be an abundance of land that has been handed down through a family that might not even be local.
“There’s a lot of dormant land owned by Americans who inherited it from their parents who bought it in the ‘40s or whatever that they just sit on it and no taxes are collected on it,” he said.
“What we’re saying is it’s not fair to the municipalities. Dawson has a majority of conservation lands, and then Murillo is another one, it has lots of them, but otherwise Chapple and Morley and them, they have very few. I guess the Dawson area, a lot of it’s land that’s toward the lake.”
There’s also the possibility, Hartnell said, that individuals could potentially game the system by turning their land over to conservation land for a period of time, then reverting the land, selling off the timber for profit and reconverting the land after the work is done to continue to avoid paying taxes, though he didn’t say if this was something that had been done specifically.
Herntell himself understands the need for conservation land and acknowledges there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it’s implementation by the government that’s been causing issues that NOMA is moving on.
“It’s a good deal,” he said.
“Everybody wants natural land and everything else, but if the province wants this, they can put all the properties they want into that but they should pay the municipalities the taxes so then no one gets hurt. If the province wants to keep these conservation lands, they should pay the municipalities the taxes based on the impact assessments, and then everybody would be happy.”
Hartnell said that in the future NOMA will lobby the government to make a change to the way the program works so that the province can continue to amass conservation land for its purposes but also fairly compensate the municipalities who are losing out on tax revenue.
“It’s been an ongoing issue with Dawson Township for a long time and I just brought it to the attention of NOMA at the last teleconference we had, they asked me to get on it and try to move it forward,” he said.
“[The province] wants to preserve some natural lands, which is fine, but municipalities are getting hurt because of it.”