Fate of B.C. farmland uncertain

Leaked cabinet report obtained by Globe and Mail shows B.C. Liberals want to split up ALR

Maple Ridge’s mayor has questions, while the ex-MLA who took a stand for farmland is “disgusted” after hearing the B.C. government could be dismantling the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Both were commenting on the Nov. 7 Globe and Mail story quoting secret cabinet documents that said the land reserve would be split into north and south areas and that the ALC would become part of the agriculture ministry.

The story also said cities would get authority to decide “community growth applications,” to pull land out of the farm reserve.

“This is really serious stuff. It’s mind boggling,” said Michael Sather, former MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.

“It’s scary. This is basically the dismantling of the ALR,” he added.

“You know and I know what will happen in Maple Ridge.”

Applications such as that a few years ago to remove Pelton tree nursery land at 203rd Street and Golden Ears Way for development into a business park, Sather said, won’t get stopped.

“It’s just going to be urban sprawl, en masse, loss of farmland.”

The ALR recently refused to allow the north side of 105th Avenue in Albion Flats to be developed, resulting in mall developer SmartCentres offering to swap land with the district to allow building on the south side.

Sather said he’s taking the report seriously, pointing out previous indications from Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, in charge of the core review of government services, including  that of the land reserve.

He said in August that he wanted to look at redrawing ALR boundaries.

“This puts meat on the bones,” Sather said.

He challenged Bennett’s statement that the government wouldn’t undermine farmland.

“That’s not true. He knows that’s not true.”

The Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1973 and covers 4.7 million hectares, about five per cent of B.C., protecting farmland from development.

Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin agreed that after 40 years, the reserve should be reviewed.

Many cities are frustrated by the land commission’s decisions prohibiting withdrawing land from the agricultural reserve for development.

“It is a blunt land tool, in many ways,” Daykin said.

It’s also managed growth for 40 years.

Daykin agrees that municipalities need to be able to plan their own growth.

But, “sometimes we need to be protected from ourselves.”

Daykin is also worried about downloading of more land-use responsibilities on to municipalities, without a land commission protecting farmland.

“That’s going to be an interesting debate – wow.”

Sather’s successor, Liberal MLA Doug Bing, agreed that giving cities authority to decide on farmland exclusions “would open it up in ways that wouldn’t be desirable.

“We do need some control,” he said.

No decisions have been made, Bing added.

He also said the land commission faces different issues in the Lower Mainland compared to the rest of B.C. In Dawson Creek, for example, the commission is limiting the city’s desire to grow to accommodate an energy-fuelled population boom.

Pitt Meadows Coun. Bruce Bell, an NDP supporter, said councillors and the community are proud of the preservation of farmland. Currently, 86 per cent of Pitt Meadows is within the ALR.

“It’s served us well and stood the test of time. Even more so, now that folks have realized the value of growing food. It’s become fairly obvious we’re going to need it.”

But Bennett said the papers are working documents, for discussion only.

“There’s no way we’re going to be bringing the ALC inside government and remove its independence.

“We are not interested in changing the central principal that underlies the ALR, which is the protection of farmland and the sustainabilty of farming.

“An article like this really not helpful because it ignites all this legitmate concern – if government was actually thinking about blowing up the commission … but it’s not happening.”

He said the ideas were raised but it doesn’t mean that any of them were adopted. “We’re not proposing to take the authority from the Agricultural Land Commission to make decisions about the ALR and give it to cities.

“Not on. Not going to happen.”

New Democrat agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said the leaked documents showed how determined the government is to undermine the independence of the commission “in order to destroy the ALR.”

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