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NDP Changes Will Better Protect Agricultural Land Reserve, Says Former Commission Chair

BC Liberal leader says amendments ‘trample on’ farmer rights.

By Andrew MacLeod 28 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has been under fire over changes that would prevent individual farmers from applying to remove land from the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve, but a former head of the Agricultural Land Commission says the government is making a needed change.

Richard Bullock, who chaired the commission from 2010 to 2015, said the changes would send a strong message to would-be speculators of B.C.’s agricultural land.

“Some believe there is a ‘right’ to apply to exclude land from the Agricultural Land Reserve,” said a statement from Bullock. “After almost 50 years of opportunity for individual landowners to make an application to remove land from the ALR, the proposed change to that process is the next logical step.”

The ALR — intended to protect farmland, with restrictions on non-agricultural uses — includes 4.6 million hectares, almost five per cent of the province.

Earlier this month the government introduced Bill 15, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, but it has not yet been called for further debate.

“This bill really focuses on the governance of the Agricultural Land Commission and the way applications are processed,” Popham said.

The opposition has criticized how the bill defines “person” so that individual farmers aren’t included among those who can apply to have land removed from the reserve.

On Monday, BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said during question period that farmers who were visiting the legislature were fed up and angry with the government.

“They need to be able to manage their lands to produce food. They’ve found that under this agriculture minister, their property rights are being seriously trampled on,” he said.

Popham responded to Wilkinson that the government is doing a lot to support farming.

“You can’t really farm if you don’t have an Agricultural Land Reserve to do it on,” she said. “We’re making sure that we’re revitalizing that reserve. We’re making it stronger than ever.”

The changes will make it more viable for farmers to make a living, she said.

Wilkinson quoted a farmer named Ben Dhiman who’d participated in a rally in Surrey, saying, “There’s been a constant attack on our way of life... and, most importantly, our rights as property owners.”

Popham said that Wilkinson and other BC Liberals had been misleading people in their constituencies.

“I understand why the Official Opposition is so upset. For 16 years, they considered the Agricultural Land Reserve a bank for development,” she said. “Well, we consider it a reserve for agriculture and food production. I’m sorry if that upsets you.”

In an interview, Popham said that the BC Liberals have used a two-week break in the legislature to “spread misinformation about the bill.”

Landowners have always had to go through a municipality if they wanted their land removed from the ALR, she said, but in some cases municipalities forward those applications to the land commission without commenting on whether or not they support the withdrawal.

The commission then has to go through an onerous process, meeting with owners and local government representatives to see if the proposal fits with official community planning, she said. About 40 of the 600 applications the commission received last year were for the removal of land from the ALR.

The change the government is making will make the process more efficient for the commission and more transparent for landowners and local governments, Popham said.

“If the landowner wants to have an application to exclude land, they would work with local government, and local government would submit an application on their behalf after running through whether or not there’s a community benefit to doing so.”

The landowner can still correspond with the commission to express what they want to happen with their land, she said. Landowners can also still make other kinds of applications to the commission.

“It’s really about protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve,” Popham said, adding that most people who are farming don’t want to get their land out of the reserve, and the bill sends a strong message to people speculating on farmland. “We’ve tightened that up, so it’s not as easy to do.”

In his statement, Bullock said the changes would protect farmland and make it more affordable than it otherwise would be.

“As chair, I observed that the large majority of the exclusion applications were not from farmers and ranchers, but instead from folks looking to make a substantial gain from paving over good agricultural land,” he said.

“Moving to have exclusions of land from the ALR be part of a broader joint local government and commission land use planning exercise makes sense.”

People often forget the commission and local governments have already made a lot of effort to refine the ALR boundary, he said.

“This is not about property rights. It is about reducing speculation on agricultural land. As long as the ‘door is open’ to an individual or company to make an application to remove agricultural land from the ALR, speculation on these lands will continue.”

Bullock’s term as chair of the commission ended early when the BC Liberal government fired him in 2015, saying that the government was changing regulations and it was time for new leadership.

Bullock had been strongly critical of those changes.

During the fall sitting of the legislature, the BC NDP government passed legislation it said would strengthen the land reserve.

It restricted the size of homes that can be built in the ALR, reversed a decision by the former government to split the reserve into two zones with different levels of protection, and increased penalties for breaking the law.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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