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Big governments take power from small ones in economic matters

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Saturday, April 24, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Provincial and state governments across North America are contemplating and sometimes passing legislation that restricts the ability of lower governments to make land use decisions. In Wisconsin, for example, the state legislature has introduced the Livestock Facility Siting Bill. Under this bill, the state Department of Agriculture would write rules for siting and expanding livestock facilities. A village, town or county would then have to use those rules. Local governments also would be barred from stopping large facilities, except in special circumstances.

In Wisconsin, as in many rural areas of North America, controversy has arisen over the construction of intensive livestock facilities, including mega-dairies, feedlots and hog barns. In response to pressure from rural residents, local governments have sometimes used their land-use bylaws to prohibit, or to impose rules and regulations on intensive livestock facilities. The new act would create a standard set of rules that local governments would be forced to use.

Similar battles and similar laws are happening in Canadian provinces. Manitoba recently introduced Bill 40, a bill to amend the Manitoba Planning Act. The bill, according to the government, is intended to provide "consistency to land use decisions". Like the Wisconsin legislation, it would reduce the powers of municipal governments over intensive livestock operations (ILOs).

Critics have lined up on both sides of the bill. The National Farmers Union maintains that local governments should have ultimate authority in matters around siting. It claims the new rules will prevent municipal councils from regulating "matters concerning the use, application and storage of manure". The NFU says it would also "open up local governments to lawsuits if a corporation felt they were inappropriately applying such rules".

Manitoba Pork, on the other hand, claims the "government only went half way in introducing provincial standards in guiding local land use decision-making. This simply invites further inconsistencies between neighbouring rural municipalities."

Saskatchewan's Association of Rural Municipalities recently set up a committee "to identify impediments to rural economic development within the existing municipal structure, legislation or policy and to make recommendations for change." According to SARM President Neal Hardy, "Our goal is to create a regulatory environment that doesn't hinder economic development in rural Saskatchewan." If the committee report finds areas where change is necessary, the logical outcome would be provincial legislation that forces some uniformity of regulations on municipalities.

It's obvious there are conflicts between the way different levels of government see their responsibilities. Municipal governments, by their nature, allow local input into decisions that have large local impacts. Provincial and state governments like to think they represent the broader and more objective view. There is a degree of truth in both sides, and a degree of problem.

For example, in the case of intensive livestock operations, municipalities may be lobbied hard by residents over decisions to allow an ILO to build in their jurisdiction. Provincial governments, in turn, may be pressured by corporations to override the authority of municipalities on the grounds that they are too close to the situation to be objective. While provinces may see the benefits of economic developments, they are less concerned about the drawbacks.

Saskatchewan's rural municipalities have long defended their right to be sovereign in their own territory, so any changes that affect their powers could be a hard sell. Nevertheless, some of the municipalities are so small that the criticism they can't be objective may be correct. If the province's solution to that problem is to take away some municipal powers, it should be asked if the solution is the right one. If RMs are too small to exercise their authority appropriately, you can either take away their power or change their structure. Given the track record of Saskatchewan's RMs, the former might be less difficult. However, the latter would leave more power at the local level.

ILOs will always be controversial, for many reasons. One of the reasons is that governments have failed to properly address the problems they create. As citizens, we sometimes have to accept some inconvenience for the greater good. If I live in northeast Regina, the smell of the oil refinery and the occasional bit of ash raining from the sky affect my quality of life. The refinery is also a huge economic driver in the city's economy. But if the paint on my car is ruined by the particles from the sky, my government auto insurance will pay me. The larger society bears some of the cost.

If a hog barn is built next to my farm and affects my quality of life and property value, I can't go to Saskatchewan Government Insurance and be compensated. I can't go anywhere because government legislation protects the hog barn.

If governments would address this issue of liability, some of the opposition to ILOs would decline. To date, governments across North America have chosen denial as the major means of dealing with it. Municipal governments then sometimes take the cautious approach of protecting residents from the problems in the first place. The province or state responds by taking away municipal powers. There has to be a better way.

One plus for SARM's committee is that it proposes to take the bull by the horns before the province does. Now, it needs to listen to both sides of the arguments, not just the side with the money, or the side only seeking to protect its turf. Good luck!

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax