The man charged with protecting British Columbia's 4.7-million-hectare Agricultural Land Reserve is concerned the government has made the system unfair by creating two separate categories of farmland.
"I'm not sure if any of our people should be treated different in one part [of the province] than they are in another," Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, said Thursday as he tried to digest sweeping changes introduced in the legislature. "I thought [equal treatment] is how we operated as a society, but we'll see."
Mr. Bullock's comments came shortly after Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson held a news conference in Victoria to announce the government is making the most significant amendments in 40 years to the Agricultural Land Commission Act. The autonomous ALC, created in 1974, has long been considered "sacrosanct" in B.C. because it protects farmland from getting gobbled up by development.
The government has now created two zones of agricultural land: Zone 2, covering nearly 90 per cent of farmland in the north and the Interior; and Zone 1, for the smaller but more highly productive land on the south coast, Okanagan and Vancouver Island.
Mr. Thomson said the changes are aimed at "modernizing" the ALC and better recognizing the province's regional differences.
Under the amendments, Zone 1 lands will be more strictly protected.
"In Zone 1, where land is in greater demand and there are development and population pressures, ALC decisions will continue to be made on the basis of the original principle of preserving agricultural land. In Zone 2, where growing seasons are shorter and there are lower value crops, ALC decisions will now, in addition to the original principle, include additional considerations to provide farmers with more flexibility to support their farming operations," the government said in a statement.
Mr. Thomson stressed that the amendments "don't at all change the independent decision-making process of the commission. The commission remains an independent body … the focus is about sustaining the farm sector and preserving land for future generations." He said the changes are intended to make it easier for farmers to do "value-added farming activities" on their land, such as food processing.
In B.C.'s northeast, however, where the oil and gas industry is booming, there have been increased opportunities for farmers to use some of their land to support industrial activities.
Asked what he thought of applying different rules to farmers, depending on which zone they were in, Mr. Bullock replied: "It's an issue. … Maybe Minister Thomson's going to have to sit down and talk to me on how he sees it working. I don't know."
The changes came as part of a core review of government services being undertaken by Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines.
Last fall The Globe and Mail obtained a confidential "cabinet decision summary sheet" prepared by Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm, which recommended creating two ALR zones, allowing local governments to make decisions on applications to remove land from the reserve, and modernizing the commission "by moving the ALC into the Ministry."
Asked why the government had shied away from Mr. Pimm's recommendations to strip the ALC of its autonomy, Mr. Thomson said the leaked summary "is not a document that was considered by cabinet or by the process."
Mr. Pimm was not available because of health problems.
The BC Food Systems Network issued a statement saying the changes "weaken protection for 90 per cent of lands currently in the ALR."