A farmer working the land in Delta. The province has unveiled changes to the Agricultural Land Commission it says will help protect farmland.

Province pledges better farmland protection

More money, help for strengthened Agricultural Land Commission

After years of cuts left the Agricultural Land Commission struggling to do its job, the province is now providing a $1.6-million cash injection as part of a broader plan to bolster protection of scarce farmland.

The ALC will get an extra $600,000 for the rest of this fiscal year and an extra $1 million for 2012, supplementing its $1.9-million budget, which had been slashed by more than a third since 2002.

Agriculture Minister Don McRae said it’s not a permanent budget increase.

Instead, he promises to let the ALC charge as-yet-undetermined service fees to generate more of its own revenue starting in 2013.

McRae also ordered a moratorium on repeat applications so developers who try to remove land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) but are refused will have to wait five years before trying again. That measure is expected to ease some of the ALC’s workload.

ALC chair Richard Bullock said he hopes the changes to strengthen the agency stamp out the pervasive belief among real estate speculators that they will eventually be able to pry farmland out of the ALR for development.

“I hope this puts a nail in that argument,” he said. “[The ALR] is here and it’s here to stay.”

Bullock had warned the government in a report released this week that the ALC was “extremely challenged” to meet its mandate, that stakeholders were near-unanimous in their concerns about underfunding and that there remains “overwhelming” public support to protect the ALR.

B.C.’s Auditor General had previously flagged the lack of funding as one reason the ALC often fails to prosecute people who degrade farmland by dumping toxic fill or through other non-farm uses.

Commission staff tend to issue warnings instead of fines or orders because the ALC can’t afford to defend tougher measures in court.

McRae said the commission will now have access to up to 30 enforcement staff in other government ministries to assist them.

And he said local cities that want to help enforce farmland rules will have the ability to use their bylaw enforcement officers to pitch in as well.

“We’re going to work with municipalities,” McRae said. “If that’s something they want, they can go down that path.”

Metro Vancouver agriculture committee chair Harold Steves said that initiative would merely restore the ability of cities’ to enforce soil protection rules, which was taken away more than 10 years ago.

“In the years since that happened it’s been open season on farmland for putting in illegal fill,” he said. “We’re losing as much farmland to illegal landfilling and dumping as we are to development.”

Steves welcomed the promise of more funding and tougher enforcement.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go.”

He noted much Metro farmland is being converted by the province itself to build new highways and overpasses or by Port Metro Vancouver for port-related development.

Nothing in the measures announced stops that or prevents speculators from buying farmland in places like Delta and waiting for the right offer from the port, he said.

The changes also give the ALC chair a more prominent role overseeing regional panels that decide on changes to the land reserve.

Decisions of those panels can now be appealed to the chair.

The province did not follow Bullock’s recommendation to create a single provincial panel, with representatives from each region, to decide all ALR changes.

Steves said a provincial panel would have been less vulnerable to lobbying at the local level.

McRae said the changes will also allow the ALC to become more proactive in responding to agricultural issues and promoting farming.

A large estate house off No. 3 Road in Richmond. The province has proposed a standardized bylaw that – if passed by local cities – would ban the construction on ALR land of homes with a large residential area footprint or that are positioned too far inside the property. bing.com image

B.C. fails to block farm mansions: critic

One critic says the province’s decision not to slap consistent limits on the construction of houses in the Agricultural Land Reserve means giant estate mansions will continue to spring up on Lower Mainland farms.

Agriculture Minister Don McRae unveiled a new standardized bylaw cities can adopt that restricts the house size and its placement to curb the proliferation of mega-houses that chew up the land base for growing crops.

But leaving local councils to decide whether to actually pass the bylaw means the promise of better protection likely won’t materialize, Metro Vancouver agriculture committee chair Harold Steves warned.

Only Delta and Richmond restrict farm house construction, he said, adding realtors and land developers have so far beaten back efforts by other local councils to bring in similar rules.

“They’ve attempted to bring them in but every time they do there’s a huge lobby from the development community against it,” Steves said.

“It’s wonderful the B.C. government will have guidelines and a bylaw that could be put in place but it doesn’t help very much if the municipalities are afraid to pass it.”

Metro Vancouver had called on Victoria to enforce consistent minimum rules for house construction, arguing estate mansions drive up the price of agricultural land and make it less likely to be farmed.

McRae said the government decided against provincially enforced rules because a one-size-fits-all solution wouldn’t work for some cities with different needs outside Metro Vancouver.

“We didn’t want to be heavy-handed,” he said. “It will allow them to do what they feel is necessary to preserve farmland.”

The limits recommended by the province would cap the residential footprint at 2,000 square metres (except when separate farm residences are needed) and require that footprint not extend further than 60 metres from the front property line.

It doesn’t recommend a specific house size limit, but suggests cities that want one cap the maximum floor area for a main farm house at 500 square metres or the maximum allowed on urban land, whichever is lower.

If imposed by a city, those limits would block the farmland development of very large mansions with pools or the placement of smaller homes deep inside the property, which can make farming less efficient.