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Farmland's Fate in Local Hands

Those who rule on removing farmland unduly susceptible to community pressure.

By Rafe Mair 31 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Barnston Island wins backhoe reprieve.

Barnston Island, perfectly located for an industrial area and port, will not see the developers' excavation diggers but will stay in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Environmentalists are ecstatic and developers correspondingly sad. But it's not over yet, and that's the problem.

First let's look at the land freeze introduced in 1973 by the Dave Barrett-led NDP government. The protests were loud, long and exaggerated. Open-line radio had no shortage of angry protestors throwing names like Stalin, Lenin and even Hitler into the boiling cauldron. The legislature was all but stormed, not by the usual suspects who take their bikes or walk to the parliament buildings, but by the province's elite.

Some, I'm told, had trouble finding parking for their Cadillacs and Lincolns. What people forgot was that the groundwork for this freeze came from the old "socialist" himself, W.A.C. Bennett, who, much to the annoyance of his fruit-growing constituents, restricted development by legislating that the smallest lot permitted for sale or development was five acres. As a Kamloops lawyer, I represented one of the main developers, the late Pat McBride, in Kelowna, at the seemingly endless public hearings and protests. While this was thin gruel compared to what was to happen in 1973, the handwriting was clearly on the wall.

When the legislation was debated in the house, Don Phillips, Social Credit MLA for Peace River South, about as conservative a riding as you'll find, filibustered the bill and was forever more known as "Leather Lungs." Barrett held his ground, the legislation was passed and soon thereafter proclaimed.

NDP 'sins' became sacrosanct

Fast forward to December 11, 1975, when the Socreds came back into power and Bill Bennett took over his father's old office. The new troops on the backbench had two targets -- abolish the land freeze and get rid of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC). The new government, that is to say cabinet, of which I was a member, did neither.

ICBC, though a financial mess, was a case of eggs turned into an omelette -- there was no going back. Private companies had their fingers burned once, and there was no guarantee the NDP wouldn't return to office and burn them all over again. Instead, the Socreds set up a committee, chaired by Pat McGeer, of which I was a member, which investigated the matter thoroughly, taking a great deal of advice from those opposed to ICBC. We concluded that it was a deal that couldn't be undone.

Instead, the government brought in a substantial rise in premiums to put the corporation on its feet. We had the province white with anger and the demonstrations that followed were second only to the land-freeze ones.

The land freeze, like ICBC, had become popular. Moreover, most of us saw that something like it had to come. We decided to fix the problem of abundant non-agricultural land caught in what's now known as the Agricultural Land Reserve through "fine-tuning."

Thus, in a relatively short period, two NDP initiatives became sacrosanct.

ALC defers to local pressures

Back to Barnston Island. There is another way to get land out of the ALR -- the municipality may make its own application. The standards are a bit different than for an owner. Here is the appropriate section of the Agricultural Land Commission Act:

29 (1) On the commission's own initiative or on application by a local government in respect of land within the local government's jurisdiction...the commission may

(a) exclude land from an agricultural land reserve on terms the commission considers advisable, or

(b) without excluding the land from an agricultural land reserve, grant permission for a non-farm use or subdivision in respect of the land that is the subject of the application, on any terms the commission considers advisable.

In essence, while the owner is pleading his own case, which invariably avers that the land is no good and that he wants to make a lot of money please, the municipality may make the case that, for its future needs, it must have the land out of the reserve.

The owners of Barnston got second prize partly because the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which governs the island, objected to its removal.

If there's a municipal or regional government that is in sympathy with the owners' politics, they might get lucky and have their local government take up the cudgels on their behalf. That's not likely, I'm told, with the current makeup of the GVRD, but as we all know, municipal and regional governments may change political stripes.

Here comes the bad part, the part that will, in time, undo the Agriculture Land Commission Act for all intents and purposes. Again, the appropriate sections:

(2) The chair of the commission may establish up to 6 panels comprised of 2 or more members of the commission.

(3) The panels may be established according to geographic regions of British Columbia or according to any other criteria the commission may determine.

Political appointees beholden to masters

Now, gentle readers, bear with me. The chair and vice-chairs of the Agricultural Land Commission, which oversees the reserve, are appointed by cabinet -- they are political appointments. Not only does the commission's chair -- in debt to, if not answerable to, the B.C. Liberal party -- make recommendations on the appointment of other commissioners, who are chosen by the minister of agriculture and lands, but he or she can configure commission panels of these political appointees in a manner that makes them susceptible not only to the B.C. Liberals, to whom they owe their jobs, but also to local political pressures in the regions where they live.

This not to say that there won't be dedicated, non-political people hearing applications to remove land from the reserve -- there will be. It is to say that these local panels will be made up of people who earn their livings in the regions involved, where they belong to service clubs, go to church, and shop, and they may well depend upon the citizens, especially the powerful among them, for their bread and butter. They are under enormous pressure to get Toonerville, or you name the town, "moving again." Those who would oppose the wishes of the local council or chamber of commerce will be as welcome in their communities as a cow at a christening. This isn't an arm's length away from conflict; it's not even a baby toe length away.

So, good citizens everywhere, if you want to preserve agriculture land in your bailiwick, keep your eye on applications by your local politicians to remove land from the land reserve, for this is the really insidious part. While there is process by which exempted land can be put back in the reserve, you won't assume, if you're like me, that it's likely to happen often. Yet bit by bit, but nevertheless certainly, more and more land will be removed.

The Gordon Campbell government, by ensuring that all the commission panels are made up of the "right sort of people," has made sure that's bound to happen.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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