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Sound the ALRms

Changes to the way the Agricultural Land Reserve is managed worries some, pleases others

"On thing is abundantly clear, the world’s human population cannot live on imported food," wrote Wendell Berry in his 1995 book, Farming in the Global Community. "Some people somewhere are going to have to grow the food. And wherever food is grown, the growing of it will raise the same two questions: How do you preserve the land in use? And how do you preserve the people who use the land?

In British Columbia, "land" refers to the approximately 5 per cent of the total area that is actually suitable for agriculture. The rest of the province is too rocky, too steep, too wet, too high, or too dry to grow crops.

Almost 30 years ago Dave Barrett’s NDP government officially recognized the fragile and fragmented nature of this resource, the economic contribution agriculture makes to the province and especially rural areas, and the dangers of relying on food imports. At the time the province was losing an average of 6,000 hectares of land each year to various developments, commercial, industrial and residential.

B.C.’s Land Commission Act came into effect in April of 1973. A commission, appointed by the provincial government, established a special land use zone in partnership with local governments to protect B.C.’s dwindling supply of agricultural land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

ALR areas were determined by the agricultural capability of the land, its current use, local zoning and public input. Some 23 of B.C.’s 28 regional districts had completed ALR plans by 1975, protecting the most important 5 per cent.

It wasn’t a popular Act at the time, limiting the types of activities that could take place on privately owned land. You were free to buy and sell, providing that it was your intention to farm the land. In theory, anyway.

Even the various provincial governments have had a few problems sticking to the letter of the ALR regulations, and over the years both they and the ALR committee have approved several non-farm uses within ALR boundaries: the Gloucester Industrial Estates in Langley; the Terra Nova proposal in Richmond; the Spetifore property in Delta, the Six Mile Ranch outside of Kamloops.

Nevertheless the ALR has continued to grow steadily over the past three decades.

Between 1974 and 2000, there have been 989 applications for inclusion into the ALR, increasing the area of protected farm land from 30,012.2 hectares to 129,683.1 hectares in 2000. During the same period there have only been 324 applications for exclusion. Most were granted, but only after they met the criteria specified by the Land Reserve Commission. Usually the requests for exclusion were downsized in the process, or the applicant agreed to provide something in exchange for the ruling, such as more land for the ALR.

The current Liberal government is in the processes of reforming the Land Reserve Commission to make decisions more community-based and less political. They have also pledged to cut 30 per cent of the regulations surrounding the land reserve, and to create six new regional panels to handle the decision making.

The desire to make the process less political stems from the Six Mile Ranch case, which divided the NDP government in 1998. At the time the NDP cabinet overruled the Land Reserve Committee’s decision to oppose the development of a subdivision on prime agricultural land outside of Kamloops by claiming the project to be in the "provincial interest." Not only did the people who opposed the plan feel the decision constituted a conflict of interest – environment minister Cathy McGregor’s home riding was Kamloops – they also feared for the precedent it might set.

Tom Perry, a former NDP MLA said, "History may record you as the government who opened the floodgates to the disintegration of this province’s Agricultural Land Reserve." A number of NDP members publicly criticized the decision, and NDP MLA Joan Sawicki resigned her position as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment.

The loophole in the ALR regulations still exists, although the phrase "public interest" has been redefined and agriculture has been made the first priority in any consideration.

By putting the power in the hands of regional groups rather than the government, pro agricultural groups are optimistic that the new system will give them more power to protect their interests. Farm owners located close to urban areas, developers and the real estate industry are optimistic that the new system will help them to use ALR land for non-farming projects.

According to Stephen Thomson, the executive director of the B.C. Agricultural Council, nobody knows how the changes will affect the ALR at this point, but his organization is working to ensure that agriculture continues to come first.

"There are some concerns within the organization about how this whole new process will work," he says. "Protection of agricultural land is still the top mandate, and there is still an ALR rather than a combined land reserve and forest reserve, so the government still thinks it’s important. But nobody knows what is going to happen.

"The proof will be in the operation of the commission and the panels, and that’s a wait-and-see process. We will continue to watch it closely to make sure it’s working " for everybody."

In the Pemberton area, there are more than 2,600 hectares of land protected in the ALR. Although there hasn’t been a rush of applications to remove land from the reserve, Steven Olmstead expects the SLRD to have some input into the decision-making contest.

"We may get some authority delegated to us in accordance with either the zoning bylaws or the community plan, if they (ALR panel) agree with our plan or agree with our bylaws," he says.

The regional district in Burnaby is currently involved in deciding applications to remove land from the ALR in that area for non-farm uses such as second dwellings. The Pemberton situation is similar he says.

"In the Pemberton area there’s a fair bit of local concern about protecting the agricultural land, so our zoning would be in place anyway. Even if the land reserve provisions were significantly altered there are still zoning provisions that would have to come first.

"I only know of maybe one subdivision application that we’ve dealt with, but there’s this growing sense that some of the properties, acreages and so forth are being sold off and marketed as sort of residential type properties rather than agricultural properties – big estate type properties rather than working farms."

Olmstead says the community takes the threat to ALR seriously and even formed an action group, ALR*T, to maintain the integrity of the reserve.

Richard Pomeroy, who runs a working farm in Pemberton but only lives there part of the time, says ALR*T has enlisted more than 110 members since the group was formed a year and a half ago.

They didn’t get together out of a concern for Liberal policy, however, but in response to a planned industrial project in the Pemberton Meadows that would have taken land out of the ALR.

"Every agency that looked at this project has said that it’s not in the right place. People thought industrial applications ought to be close to the highway since there’s going to be trucks going in and out. It doesn’t belong in farmland," says Pomeroy.

As far as the government’s changes go, Pomeroy says they can change all the procedure they want providing that the basis of the ALR continues to be the preservation and enhancement of farmland.

"I don’t have a big problem with the principles they say they are applying, which I understand to mean they’re not changing the conditions under which the ALR exists or the conditions under which the lands will stay in the ALRD. As a general principle, I’m in favour of more local control over issues like this."

Local control is necessary to protect farmland in Pemberton, not to dismantle it. A committee is currently looking into changing the zoning and bylaws in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, and ALR*T is taking an active role in that process.

"It’s an important local issue," says Pomeroy. "There is a lot of pressure on Pemberton from more vigorous surrounding communities such as Whistler. Much like Whistler, which has its own community development plan and sets its own restriction and conditions and control over where things go, the people in Pemberton are determined to do the same thing."

For example, if the proposed industrial project in the ALR was in Whistler it would be relegated to Function Junction. They believe these kinds of projects are more suitable for Pemberton’s own industrial park.

"Once somebody busts the ALR, people are going to be lined up to do the same thing," he says.

The Liberal government fired most of the members of the Land Reserve Committee, and is in the process of restaffing the organization and creating regional panels.

Nobody know what the final plan will be, although most expect to see a version of it in the next few months.