P.E.I. "cannot afford to maintain the status quo in a world that is changing" when it comes to land conservation, concludes a report released Thursday.

The Report of the Commission on Land Use and Local Governance has been in the government's hands since early December, but the province has taken a month to absorb the report's 40 recommendations before releasing it to the public.

Among the recommendations are suggestions the government needs to spend more on land conservation, including:

  • An increase in the budget for the Alternative Land Use Services Program, which rewards farmers who take land out of cultivation for conservation purposes.
  • More money for the Greening Spaces and the Hedgerow and Buffer Zone Planting programs, including replacing the provincial greenhouse that provides plants for these programs.
  • Continued support for groups such as the Island Nature Trust and Nature Conservancy and their efforts to preserve and protect natural areas.

There were expectations the report could have more to say about bringing more of the Island under municipal governments. Currently two thirds of the Island's area is unincorporated.

The report makes no recommendation regarding bringing those areas under municipal government. Instead, it calls for more consultation on the subject in order to "determine a consensus of Islanders in relation to the incorporation of some or all of the province into municipalities."

The report does suggest moving toward some degree of harmonization of planning regulations. Several recommendations — addressing the building of new subdivisions and official development plans — suggest that regulations be brought in line with those in Charlottetown, Summerside, Stratford and Cornwall.

Judge Ralph Thompson, who wrote the report, said P.E.I. is in a vulnerable position and Islanders may now be ready to support land-use changes because if they don’t, they risk losing the water, land, heritage and natural areas.

" I think it has the potential to happen. Whether it does or not, depends how it's taken from here," he said.

Thompson is not the first to suggest sweeping land-use changes. There was Elmer MacDonald’s Round Table report in 1997, and before that, Doug Boylan's royal commission on the land, which Thompson acknowledges is still the definitive report on land ownership and land use.

Thompson once again recommends a consistent and comprehensive land-use plan for the entire Island, something no previous government has done.

"As you see prime agricultural land being turned into subdivisions, that doesn't speak well for agriculture or the Island as a whole," he said.

Thompson recommends larger incorporated municipalities because there are 72 in the province now that have a population base of fewer than 2,000 people.

He suggests government undertake public consultations on that, and he has asked the province to review its subdivision and development regulations, pointing out there are 20,000 undeveloped lots on the Island.

He also recommends a new funding approach for municipalities based on the services they provide.

Community and Cultural Affairs Minister Carolyn Bertram said she has taken steps to create a land-use co-ordinating committee to develop a provincial land-use plan.

She's also appointing a task force to develop public consultation and opinions on the Thompson report.

"I don't believe that means more studies. It means we have to go to the public on some of his recommendations and he has called on that as well," Bertram said.

Thompson included an implementation strategy in his report.

Some of the measures will be implemented quickly, Bertram said, while others will take time.