Local producer critical of agriculture land changes

A new bill tabled last Thursday (March 27th) proposes to break B.C. into two agricultural zones

Agricultural land in the Kootenays may be more prone to development pressures after a new bill tabled last Thursday (March 27th)  proposes to break B.C. into two agricultural zones.

Government Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, would place the Kootenays, Northern B.C. and the Interior under less stringent regional panels of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), opening up more possible land uses.

The decision arose from the core review process headed by East Kootenay MLA and Energy Minister Bill Bennett, who drew fire when a document contemplating changes to the Agricultural Land Commission was leaked to The Globe and Mail newspaper last November. The new bill has also caught some East Kootenay producers off guard.

“There was inadequate consultation,” said Dave Zehnder, a co-owner of the Zehnder Ranch west of Invermere, a director of the BC Cattlemen’s Association and the BCCA’s ALR committee chair. “It’s missing half the equation — the support for the producers.”

Regulations under the act would allow non-farm, home-based businesses on agricultural land in the Kootenays and the two other affected regions. Details will be worked out in consultation with industry and placed in regulations, said Mr. Bennett. Value-added activities such as food processing on farmland are being considered across the province, he added.

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald said the provincial government failed to see whether farmers and B.C. residents wanted to see changes to the farmland reserve system.

“If this was their plan, they had the opportunity to get a mandate during the election, and they didn’t talk about significant changes to the ALR at all,” he said. “They’re going to fire the existing head of the Agricultural Land Commission, and it will be significant who they replace him with.”

“The risk with flexibility is that cannibalization of farmland can occur, which jeopardizes the future of agriculture in this province,” said Cattlemen’s Association General Manager Kevin Boon in reaction to the bill. “It will take strong guidance and monitoring by the ALC to ensure agriculture is put first.”

The ALC has preserved highly productive crop land in the Lower Mainland from being developed. Just 10 per cent of Agricultural Land Reserve in the Fraser Valley and southern Vancouver Island produces 85 per cent of farm revenues in B.C.

“We’re saying we weren’t consulted — maybe that’s understandable; we’re a little fish out here in the Kootenays, but this whole thing is being driven from the Kootenays,” he said. “It’s driven by about five people in the Kootenays. It’s the result of these producers in this region. We asked for consultation, and didn’t get it locally here, nor was it ever done at any level.”

In the Legislature last Thursday, Mr. Bennett said the only change to the Interior zones is the addition of social and economic factors in considering permitted uses.

He gave the example from his Kootenay constituency of a market garden operator who was refused permission to build a second home on an unproductive part of the property so the next generation could take over the business.

Kootenay land in the ALR tends to be ranch land, and doesn’t face nearly the same kind of development pressure as the Lower Mainland. A 2011 visualization project completed for the communities surrounding Lake Windermere found the existing official community plans in the area allow for up to 3,300 more dwelling units (or nearly 1,500 additional buildings) before any Agricultural Land Reserve exemptions would need to be considered for further development.

Critics to the new bill in B.C.’s interior claim farm land would be opened up to oil and gas development under an amended  Agricultural Land Commission structure.