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How to Safeguard BC's Farmland

Fixing the Agricultural Land Reserve will take vision and spine.

Charles Campbell 30 Aug

Charles Campbell has worked as a writer and editor with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee, and teaches at Capilano University.

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Chilliwack: Dreams of 'milking our ALR cash cow.'

When the verdant fields of Barnston Island were spared in July from industrial development, farmland preservationists held a big farmhouse party. The Agricultural Land Commission's decision to reject the landowners' application to remove the land from the Agricultural Land Reserve is consistent with the law and common sense. Barnston is good farmland, and the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which governs the island, strongly opposed its removal. There wasn't much room for error.

Unfortunately, not all the choices that confront the commission are so clear cut.

When circumstances are more complicated -- when local or senior governments support removing land, when the land quality isn't as high, when agricultural trade-offs are proposed, when the land use is already compromised and when the commission doesn't have all the information it needs -- mistakes are rather more likely.

That's abundantly clear in a new report from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic, Case Studies of Agricultural Land Commission Decisions: The Need for Inquiry and Reform. The report, commissioned by the Agricultural Land Reserve Protection and Enhancement Committee and released August 28, thoroughly documents the shortcomings of four recent ALC decisions -- in Invermere, Abbotsford, Sechelt and Courtenay. The two groups have called for a moratorium on the removal of prime land and independent inquiry into the commission's decision-making process.

The stakes are high, particularly where urban development and prime farmland meet, as they usually do in British Columbia, from Victoria to Kelowna. Population is exploding in the Fraser Valley west of Hope. The valley also has some of the most productive farmland on the continent, and it produces half of B.C.'s farm income.

Municipal complicity

However, land developers are patient and rich. They speculate on farmland, drive up its cost and often remove it from production until they can build on it.

Local municipalities throughout the province play handmaiden to such developers. The federal government, which is not subject to ALR jurisdiction, acts as though the reserve does not exist. The province regularly succumbs to political pressure and temptation. Now some aboriginal governments want good farmland released for development.

What will happen when our population doubles, transportation costs cramp food imports and degraded farmland around the world causes production elsewhere to decline? No, a baseball diamond, a golf course, a trade centre, a business park, a little suburban sprawl -- these things are infinitely more important to the public good than the often-unprofitable, messy business of growing food.

This week, the commission is deliberating on one somewhat typical application, by the federal government's Canada Lands Company, to remove 55 hectares of prime farmland -- the former Richmond antenna farm known as the Garden City lands. The feds want to sell the land -- cheap -- to the City of Richmond and the Musqueam band for high-density residential, exhibition centre and park development.

Richmond planners and politicians support the plan, which is to be expected given the appalling lack of regard they've long shown for the value of their community's farmland. Their failures spurred the creation of the reserve in 1973. The sole city councillor opposed to the Garden City lands development, Harold Steves, recently told the Vancouver Sun's Bill Boei he figures Richmond has lost at least a quarter of its farmland to other uses since the creation of the reserve.

Trading farms for treaties

The province, meanwhile, is negotiating several aboriginal treaties -- in Prince George, Powell River and Delta -- that could involve the transfer of provincially owned ALR property. Delta's Tsawwassen band wants to develop much of the 400-odd hectares of farmland it covets. In 2004, the province revised the Agricultural Land Commission Act to facilitate native government applications to remove land from the reserve.

The provincial government also knows the public strongly supports protecting farmland. The government's reputation for doing that job well, though, has been badly damaged -- by bribery allegations, by the removal of land owned by past and future commissioners, by politically partisan appointments to the commission, by the creation of a weaker ALC process and by a good deal more than four dubious decisions.

Minister of Agriculture and Lands Pat Bell has promised reform. The commission's chair, Erik Karlsen, is proposing changes.

Those changes must include a tougher definition of "community need," an abused aspect of the commission's "service plan," which some commissioners have strangely seen as a substitute for the ALC act itself. The decision-making structure -- the three-member regional panels that replaced a seven-member provincial commission are too susceptible to local political pressure -- needs reform. The commission must also use its considerable power to insist on sound local and regional agricultural planning. Too often one municipality pits its "community need" against another's, oblivious to the needs of the farmers who feed us. And only a dozen B.C. municipalities have agricultural plans.

Preserving farmland and encouraging agriculture is a complicated business. We need to do much more than just that. But if we're going to have a reserve at all, it must be governed by a sound process that encourages respect for its goals.

NDP failure led to reform

Critics are right to be skeptical of the government's intentions, however. Right now, a committee of exclusively government MLAs is examining the future of agriculture in the province, but the structure and membership of the committee allows government to keep its views largely under wraps. Right now, useful reform depends entirely on the goodwill of the minister and cabinet.

Protecting farmland can sometimes be politically costly. In the late 1990s, the Kamloops economy was hurting, and many of its residents saw a proposed resort development on the Six Mile Ranch at the head of the town's namesake lake as a much-needed boost. The NDP feared losing two Kamloops area seats. The government bullied the commission to remove Six Mile Ranch from the reserve, and when it didn't, cabinet removed the matter from the ALC's hands.

A single, specially appointed commissioner then excluded most of the Six Mile Ranch from the reserve in the "provincial interest," as the act allowed. However, commissioner David Perry expressed deep reservations about the definition of "provincial interest." He found it useless in weighing the value of a hayfield against the value of a resort, and noted that financially marginal agricultural interests are easily overwhelmed by other concerns.

An independent report, Stakes in the Ground, recommended a new definition of "provincial interest" that asserted the primacy of agricultural values in such decisions. The act was duly revised.

Now, however, it's far easier to remove land for an industrial park or an Alzheimer disease care home to meet ill-defined "community need" than it is to remove land for a power project or a highway in the "provincial interest."

When needs trump needs

Weak decisions to remove land based on "community need" have encouraged opportunism. Chilliwack Times headlines -- "Land reserve thaw welcomed," "Land Ahoy" and "Milking our ALR cash cow" -- tell the story. On Vancouver Island, the municipality of Langford toyed with the idea of applying to remove all its ALR land. The commission's agenda is now cluttered with lame, short-sighted removal applications supported by local governments that believe their lousy planning should be rewarded.

The Richmond application is one of those. The service plan states that land can be removed for "community need" only where "no alternatives exist." The City of Richmond and the Canada Lands Company didn't even bother to make the "no alternative" argument. That's just one of the many reasons cited by commission staff in their uncommonly firm insistence that the application be rejected. Usually, you have to read between the lines of staff reports to discern their opinion.

Disarray on the commission's south coast panel will also make it politically difficult to remove the Richmond land. One commissioner resigned last spring because he publicly declared that the Garden City lands should be developed, just as his appointment was being confirmed. Another position has been vacant since April. The third position is occupied by a staunch B.C. Liberal supporter with dicey qualifications. The current ad-hoc panel can, however, recommend more public process or encourage a revised application -- if it doesn't reject the application outright.

The power of 'no'

The commission's firmness has been more in evidence of late. While Barnston Island got all the big media attention, another important decision was made in Kamloops a few days later, when the commission rejected a proposed residential and resort development sanctioned by that city.

Kamloops city councillors are outraged, as such councillors invariably are when their development ambitions are thwarted. Many local politicians resent the ALC's intrusion into what they regard as local zoning issues. Likewise, many B.C. Liberals, in and out of cabinet, see the reserve as an impediment to economic development.

Public concern about farmland protection is building, however. And farmland exclusion issues are likely to become more difficult.

The government's Fraser Valley highway expansion plans will create more development pressure in an area that's already rife with it. Then there is the complex issue of treaty settlement. The government clearly has its eye on releasing farmland for development to address some of the province's treaty obligations. In Delta -- one municipality that staunchly supports farmland protection --that's going to be a very divisive issue.

Given these looming controversies, strengthening the ALR is not only a sound policy, it's good politics. There's still a lot of land in B.C. to develop, and to redevelop. Shortsighted, selfish opportunists -- in politics and in real estate -- must be reminded of that. Yet given that the B.C. Liberal caucus and cabinet are divided on farmland protection, reform won't be easy to achieve.

Do we need a commission of inquiry, as the ALR Protection and Enhancement Committee has suggested? It's up to Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell to prove that we don't -- that all we need are a few key politicians with some vision and spine.

Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor and author of the David Suzuki Foundation report Forever Farmland: Reshaping the Agricultural Land Reserve for the 21st Century.

Related links and Tyee stories: For Case Studies of Agricultural Land Commission Decisions: The Need for Inquiry and Reform, click here. For the ALC's file on the Garden City lands application, click here. For Charles Campbell's Tyee story "Is BC Down on the Farm?" on the controversial Invermere exclusion, click here. For Rafe Mair's Tyee column "Farmland's Fate in Local Hands," click here.  [Tyee]

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