Protecting Special Areas: Covenants & Case Study

by Briony Penn

This piece was originally published in Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places, edited by Sheila Harrington, LTA Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia, copyright 1999.

It‘s time to develop the political means for directing society toward restoring and maintaining the natural systems that ultimately support all life.” —Peter Berg, “More Than Just Saving What’s Left,” Home, A Bioregional Reader, New Society Publishers, 1990

Conservation Covenants

Conservation Covenants are tools which enable an owner of private land to pre-determine the future use of the land. Under Section 215 of the B.C. Provincial Land Title Act, a conservation covenant can be registered alongside title to the property. The owner maintains ownership of the land, but agrees to do or refrain from doing certain things for conservation purposes. A conservation organization is entrusted to monitor and enforce the covenant by the provincial government. In addition, and most importantly, the conservation covenant binds future owners of the land. Thus, if the land is later sold or passes to an estate, the covenant—and the conservation protection—remains in place.

Covenants reflect the objectives of the landowner. Examples include retaining forest areas or preventing future subdivisions. Because conservation covenants are registered with the land, if they are well written they are a powerful tool for protection of special areas and values. It is fully respectful of property rights, as future buyers clearly see and understand these limitations on the use of the land.

There are various financial incentives for entering into these agreements, ranging from federal income tax breaks to lower property taxes. The specifics of these credits are changing, so contact the West Coast Environmental Law Foundation for current information (see Map Resources).

Heritage Conservation Tools

Heritage refers to human developments such as orchards, fields etc. The tools to protect these features are more extensive than for “natural” features. The new legislation for conservation of heritage is rather complex and affords a broader range of tools than the conservation covenant. It includes such things as heritage revitalization agreements, heritage buildings, voluntary heritage designations, archeological site protection, aboriginal heritage resources etc. A community guide to these tools, prepared by the Provincial Heritage Conservation Branch, will be available as of the summer of 1995. For detailed information, contact your local planning department or local heritage society.

Common Law Covenants

These covenants are tricky and afford more loopholes than conservation covenants. Unless you plan to have an agreement between two adjoining property owners, it is recommended that you shy away from using this type of covenant.

Case Study: Using Covenants to Protect Watershed Areas

It is important to know what watershed you are in, and why you should map the sensitive areas of it. It is only during the subdivision process that the Ministry of Environment (B.C.) can require a property owner to place protective covenants on the swamps and creeks on a lot. Because no one has mapped many of these special areas, many subdivisions slip through without any protection for the watercourses (sometimes with disastrous results).

Booth Inlet is a lush estuary located on the west coast of Salt Spring Island. It is very long and shallow at high tide becoming an extensive mud-flat at low tide. It is extremely rich in plant, bird and other animal life. We recently restocked with Coho a tiny salmon stream at the head of the inlet and were amazed to see record returns of salmon three years later (ten times the expected number). Nearer the mouth of the inlet there are many clam beds and a large population of moon-snails. Heron, osprey and eagles share the bountiful harvest of fish. This estuary is definitely one of the most beautiful and fragile spots on the southern Gulf Islands.

A healthy estuary must have year round fresh water. The protection of the creeks flowing into the inlet is crucially important. There are two main inlet creeks shown on the map. Okano Creek has the Coho salmon and some salt springs; McAfee Creek has cutthroat trout and an artesian spring. Early island farming had a great impact on these streams. They were dammed and diverted; the springs along the creek were redirected in an attempt to drain the farmland. Later subdivisions and roads were built all over the watershed.

If more damage occurs in this fragile watershed the health of the entire estuary will decline. In 1994 a new subdivision with 30 lots was proposed for part of the drainage area of Mt. Erskine.

The important stream (called McAfee or Sharpe Creek) in the area of the proposed subdivision miraculously appears from a crack in the rock on the lower east slope of Mt. Erskine. This artesian spring produces 26,000 gallons per day of water year round, but only a trickle ever reaches the estuary in the summer months. The map will show you why. The water in the creek is fully licenced to nearby property owners. There is no other water source in the neighbourhood, and all the wells are dry early in the summer months. There is a maze of pipes leaving from different spots along the creek to various houses, gardens and even private pools down stream. It is a wonder that the fish living in the creek can still survive.

If each house in the proposed subdivision consumes 500 gallons of water a day, the ground water could be depleted by as much as 16,000 gallons more a day. This would threaten the fish population and the entire ecosystem of the estuary. This is why I decided to map the watershed and identify all the areas that were crucial to ground water recharge, and hopefully get some protection for them through the Ministry of Environment during the subdivision process.

retains ownership and takes on the role of steward. For some landowners who are faced with rising property taxes and ominous capital gains tax for their family when they die, covenants might provide the mechanism for taking value out of the land so that families aren’t driven to sell and subdivide cherished places.

In Europe and the States where these types of agreements have been available for many years, the public recognizes that if a land-owner voluntarily gives up the right to convert their forest or oak meadow into numerous pink stucco townhouses that they are providing a service to the community in voluntarily protecting biological diversity and green space. In return, the landowner might enjoy lower property taxes and get an income tax credit for the amount of development rights lost. It is a lot cheaper for the government to reward grantors of conservation covenants than purchase land outright for parks. It is also a lot cheaper to have the people that know and love the land manage it for perpetuity than to hire site managers. Various conservation organizations have lobbied strongly for tax reform for holders of conservation covenants. Now, if a covenant is created, the land-owner can get a reassessment for provincial property tax purposes as the property now has reduced marketability (and thus lax value). The landowner will also receive income tax credits for the amount that the land has been “devalued.”

The real value of covenants is that they might address the problems facing the parts of B.C. that are under the most threat. The most ecologically important areas are also the first areas that were put into private ownership—the valley bottoms, the Fraser delta, the grasslands on the coast and the interior. We have lots of parks and rocks and ice and sub-boreal scrub, but virtually none of the areas where the greatest diversity of life exists have any protected status. We either protect our land voluntarily or it goes forever along with the rough-skinned newts, the phantom orchids, the great blue herons, the Gariy oak, the long-eared bats, the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, the red squirrel, the alligator lizard, the burrowing owl and the badger.

I am going to go back to my lawyer (I’ll ask him if he has spotted any codicils from his boat lately), and get him to draw up a conservation covenant for this small corner of land. The swamp has significance to my neighbhours who have watched amphibian migrations in and out of it for sixty years. The patch of forest has significance to the general health of the neighbouring forest because there are some ancient wildlife trees that harbour a whole community of animals and insects that serve to repopulate the younger forest ad­jacent. And the little meadow I am restoring back to Garry oak and wildflowers will hopefully stay free of lawnmowers and developers forever.

More Sample Art Maps

Another map by Briony Penn which gives a close up look at some features to be found at her home place.

Gerardine Charlton studied at the School of Art & Design and Newcastle University in England. She is a teacher of Art, Design and Geography.

The land that is the subject of this map is on Long Harbour Road, Salt Spring Island. It was used as an orchard and for grazing sheep. It is quite a challenge to find some natural species; the numbers of Intro­duced species being high, which is quite typical of parts of the island. It Is easy to be complacent about what we see, even on a simple walk to the mail box. What do you see?

Liked it? Take a second to support Quinn Collard on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!