Province vows to close 'loopholes' in Lands Protection Act
'There are a number of loopholes that have been identified,' Premier King said during election campaign
P.E.I. Minister of Agriculture and Land Bloyce Thompson has taken to social media with a vow to close any "loopholes" that might allow corporations to purchase land in the province without requiring the transaction receive cabinet approval.
Land records show that more than 890 hectares (2,200 acres) in the area of Summerside and North Bedeque, which had been owned by Brendel Farms Ltd. was transferred to Haslemere Farms Ltd. on June 27.
Corporate records show Haslemere Farms changed its name to Red Fox Acres effective Aug. 7. Records also list Rebecca Irving as the sole director for Red Fox Acres.
Rebecca Irving is the daughter of Mary Jean Irving, and a member of the larger Irving family with multiple corporate interests including Cavendish Farms Ltd.
A spokesperson for Cavendish Farms and JD Irving said those corporations were not involved in the sale, and referred CBC to Geoff Connolly as the lawyer representing Red Fox Acres.
Connolly told CBC via email he was not able to comment at this time.
Denied previous application
In March, the previous government under Wade MacLauchlan denied an application to purchase the same property put forward by three different corporations listing members of the Irving family as directors.
Earlier that month, Mary Jean Irving said she was blessed to have two daughters interested in farming, and that the applications were on behalf of their farms.
The decision to deny the applications was made at the last cabinet meeting before the spring election was called.
Latest transaction under review
"To be clear, this transaction was not submitted to government for approval," Thompson posted to Twitter and Facebook late Friday afternoon, referring to the transfer that took effect June 27.
If it is determined that a loophole was used to skirt the intent of the legislation, we will move to amend the legislation to prevent this from happening again.— Bloyce Thompson via Twitter
Thompson posted the land purchase "is under review both internally by my department and also externally as a result of my request to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission."
He wrote the review will determine whether a "loophole" was used to allow the sale to take place without cabinet approval.
"If it is determined that a loophole was used to skirt the intent of the legislation, we will move to amend the legislation to prevent this from happening again."
CBC asked for an interview with Thompson but was told he was away for the week.
Land transfer rules may vary
Under P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act, corporations require cabinet permission to own more than five acres of land. Corporations are also limited to owning 3,000 acres, with allowances for leased and non-arable land pushing the limit up to 5,700 acres.
However there's no similar requirement to seek cabinet approval when shares of corporations change hands, raising the possibility the land may have been transferred through a change in ownership in the corporation that held it.
Corporate land ownership became an issue during the election, largely through the efforts of groups like the National Farmers Union, expressing concerns about "loopholes" in the legislation allowing corporations to go beyond land ownership limits.
'Number of loopholes'
In their platform the PCs promised to "respect and restore the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act."
"We know that there are a number of loopholes that have been identified," said PC Leader Dennis King at a debate on the issue during the campaign.
"It's now the job of government to close that loophole and to make sure the enforcement is there so that the spirit of the act is recognized."
As Minister, I can assure all Islanders that the issues raised recently as a result of the purchase of agricultural land is under review both internally by my department and also externally as a result of my request to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission 1/2—@BloyceThompson
The previous Liberal government shared preliminary results from a review of land ownership in March but left some farmers unsatisfied, saying the review needed to go further.
The government at the time pledged to conduct a separate review of the Lands Protection Act itself.
The act does include measures to prevent corporations "directly or indirectly controlled by the same person, group or organization" from stacking up land limits in order to control more land. But both government and IRAC have refused in the past to talk about how that measure is enforced.
The legislation also sets out that corporations in which the same people own more than five per cent of the shares, count together in terms of the land limits.
The law also requires corporations owning more than 2,250 acres to submit annual land holding declarations, which include the names of shareholders who own more than five per cent of the shares. However IRAC says those declarations are private.
More P.E.I. news
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Red Fox Acres as Red Fox Farms.Oct 28, 2020 5:54 PM AT