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Navigating land use responsibly: A guide for Canadian entrepreneurs 

Responsible land use includes adherence to regulatory obligations, environmental protection and community engagement.

9-minute read

Managing land is an ongoing process that involves the sustainable use, development and protection of land resources. For entrepreneurs who already own or are considering purchasing or leasing land for commercial or industrial purposes, it’s critical to understand the regulatory obligations and the broader environmental and social implications of land management.  

Land management encompasses the process, rules and structure governing the use and development of land resources, whether in urban or rural settings. This includes considerations for the land itself, water resources and other integrated ecosystems.  

Landowners are meant to be stewards of the land where they operate and are responsible for protecting it from environmental degradation.  

What are risks related to contamination? 

If it’s discovered that the land has been contaminated by previous owners, the current owners may be responsible for restoring it.  

As a property owner, it’s essential to be aware of the environmental hazards that might result from activities on your land. You also need to take preventative measures against pollution and to investigate and address any potential issues that are discovered. 

When thinking about buying or leasing a property, it’s crucial to perform an environmental assessment to understand the property’s environmental status and the risks associated with it. Tenants also need to be aware of the environmental implications of their activities. In some cases, they may be responsible for remediation if contamination occurs on the leased land, particularly if the pollution spreads during the tenant’s operations and immediate cleanup is not feasible due to ongoing operations. 

Why is responsible land use important for entrepreneurs? 

Land use holds particular significance for entrepreneurs seeking to develop land for commercial or industrial purposes.

David Wilson, Vice President of Federal Government Services in Canada at AECOM Canada Ltd., emphasizes the holistic nature of land management, covering everything from the historical use of land to its present condition and jurisdictional rights. 

“One of the first considerations when purchasing land is the state and condition of it, the water resources, stakeholder considerations and the property’s suitability for what you may seek to do there. The quality or condition of the soil, land or groundwater is important; you’ll want to know if it’s been previously contaminated and what it would take to restore it,” he says.  

Most jurisdictions in Canada will require decontamination as soon as there is a change in activity, after stopping a designated activity or if there is migration of contamination. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that environmental protections and industrial standards have evolved over time. Rules concerning land use or conditions that were acceptable a few decades ago may have been updated since and previous activities or uses on the site may have deeper impacts than were known at the time.   

The storage of hazardous waste, for example was not regulated until the late 1990s. If you control that land today, you could now be responsible for its decontamination, even if you were not responsible for historical contamination.   

“Our awareness has changed, scientifically, technically and socially, of impacts to people, to the ecosystem, water, animals and all elements. This has informed current environmental regulations,” Wilson says. 

What are environmental standards and regulations that impact land use?  

To ensure responsible land use, businesses must be aware of and comply with various standards and regulations. These may include: 

  1. Zoning laws: Regulations dictating how land can be used in specific areas. Check with your local and provincial government to ensure you’re in compliance. Rules vary by location, industry and the way land is to be used. Land zoned for agriculture, for example, cannot be used for commercial or industrial purposes unless it is rezoned.  
  2. Environmental protection laws: Regulations to minimize the impact of business activities on ecosystems, including specific Federal and Provincial regulations regarding soil, water and air contamination and regulations to prevent the destruction of wetlands.   
  3. Indigenous land rights: Rules ensuring that businesses respect and engage in meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities regarding land use on or near their territories.  
  4. Building codes: Standards for construction to ensure safety and adherence to regulations. They vary by industry, land use and location. 
  5. Noise regulations and land compatibility: Municipal bylaws often define how much noise is acceptable in a given area. When a development proposal is presented, it’s the responsibility of land use planning bodies to assess if the surrounding land uses are compatible. 

In Canada, each level of government has its own rules around land use and management and environmental protection. Many municipalities may have specific regulations regarding water, air quality and noise. Provinces often have jurisdiction but the federal government may set overarching standards as a minimum that provinces or municipalities are expected to follow. It’s important to look at all three levels of government and comply with the land management practices they set out,” says Wilson.  

It’s important to look at all three levels of government and comply with the land management practices they set out.

Governments may provide guidance documents on land use, land acquisition and what to do for approvals in different ways. Wilson advises starting with the websites of each level of government in your location.

How do you ensure responsible land use? 

Land use involves a combination of planning, monitoring and adapting to changing circumstances. Things to consider include: 

  1. Strategic planning and evaluation of activities: Develop a clear plan that outlines land use goals, taking into account environmental considerations, zoning regulations and business objectives. Evaluate the potential impact of business activities on the environment and implement measures to mitigate any negative effects.
  2. Environmental site assessments: Conduct an environmental site assessment before purchasing or leasing land to assess risk of contamination.
  3. Technology integration: Use technological tools such as GIS mapping, drones and satellite imagery for efficient monitoring and decision-making.
  4. Community engagement: Foster positive relationships with local communities and Indigenous groups, ensuring transparency and respecting cultural and land rights.

What are costs associated to land use and management? 

The cost of land management can vary based on the scale and nature of your business operations. While initial investments in technology and sustainable practices may be required, effective land management often leads to long-term cost savings. Businesses may benefit from government incentives, grants and subsidies aimed at promoting responsible land use and conservation.

What are some best practices for responsible land use and management? 

While ongoing activities will vary depending on the type of land and the way it’s used, there are some high-level recommendations, including: 

  1. Environmental protection: Prioritize practices that ensure the long-term health of the land and surrounding ecosystems. 
  2. Compliance: Stay informed about and comply with local, provincial and federal regulations to minimize regulatory risks.. 
  3. Community involvement: Engage with local communities and Indigenous groups to build positive relationships and address concerns.
  4. Continuous monitoring: Regularly monitor land use activities and adapt strategies based on changing conditions or emerging technologies.
  5. Education and training: Invest in ongoing education and training for employees to keep them informed about best practices and evolving regulations. 

It’s also helpful to communicate with other property owners in the area to align shared priorities. 

“Some issues, such as pests, weeds, fire management, contamination and road networks transcend individual property boundaries. It’s helpful to stay in touch with other local landowners to develop collaborative practices that can help each other’s land management,” says Wilson. 

How do you learn about specific land before purchasing or leasing? 

Wilson says that commercial realtors will typically compile information that meets disclosure requirements, but he cautions that deeper intelligence about the land may not be fully available.  

 “It’s important to understand everything you can about the nature of the composition of the land before you buy,” he says. 

It’s important to understand everything you can about the nature of the composition of the land before you buy.

You can review land and property assessments or hire a firm to do a complete environmental assessment. “Depending on what you learn, you may advance to more detailed explorations and assessments, including environmental testing to evaluate soil or water contamination.”

You’ll also want to check with the municipality or other governing body to understand the jurisdictional, regulatory and zoning limits to ensure your commercial operation is allowable on that land.

Land use and management are fundamental aspects of business for Canadian entrepreneurs. By understanding the importance of responsible land use, complying with regulations and implementing sustainable practices, businesses can not only thrive economically but also contribute to the overall well-being of the environment and communities in which they operate.

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