In response to vociferous protests over proposed amendments to the Agricultural Land Reserve, the B.C. government has offered up amendments meant to assure critics that the preservation of protected farmland remains a priority.
Bill 24 splits the province into two zones to allow more flexibility on farmland outside the prime producing regions. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnik, who inherited the bill when he was named minister three weeks ago, said the changes he introduced on Tuesday are a "substantive" response to the strong criticism he's heard since he took the job.
Moments after he laid out the changes in the House, the New Democrat opposition carried on as if nothing had changed. Nick Simons, the NDP agriculture critic, was on his feet calling for the entire bill to be withdrawn.
Outside the House, NDP MLA Lana Popham, who has led her party's "Kill Bill 24" campaign, said the amendments show that Mr. Letnik's consultations were a "sham" that ignored fundamental opposition from every corner of the province.
"We had hoped, because the new minister was respected by the agriculture community, that his consultation would have been authentic," she said in an interview. "It was false and unfortunately I believe the government will press ahead, the Agricultural Land Reserve will be split in two and it will be eroded."
Mr. Letnik had promised consultation on Bill 24 after he was sworn in to replace Pat Pimm, and said he was willing to scrap it if that was where his review led him. But the rookie cabinet minister quickly found himself at odds with Bill Bennett, the minister responsible for a "core review" of government who had crafted the law. Mr. Bennett publicly established the pecking order when he dismissed the notion that there would be any fundamental changes or delays to the law.
The proposed changes are the first major overhaul of the land reserve, which was created by an NDP government in the 1970s.
In Zone 1, including Metro Vancouver, southern Vancouver Island and the Okanagan, the independent Agricultural Land Commission will continue to focus on protecting farmland. Those areas include 10 per cent of the land within the reserve but generate 85 per cent of total farm sales, according to the government.
In Zone 2, covering every other region, farmers would have more flexibility in land use, to allow value-added activities such as food processing and potential oil and gas development.
Mr. Letnik told reporters his changes will ensure that the law clearly states that the preservation of farmland remains the top priority, even in Zone 2. "We wanted to make sure that the public knew our intent is to continue to support agricultural land in British Columbia."
Inside the House, Mr. Letnik introduced his changes on Tuesday afternoon after acknowledging the feedback he has collected in recent weeks. "The comments expressed are as diverse as the province itself," he said. Consensus wasn't possible, he added, but "I believe these changes improve the existing act, maintain the preservation of agricultural land as the number one priority, and continue to support farmers and the growth of the agricultural sector as was always intended."
Mr. Bennett, who has emerged as one of the most powerful ministers in Premier Christy Clark's cabinet, sat at Mr. Letnik's side. He has maintained since he launched his review of the Agricultural Land Reserve last year that the boundaries – particularly in regions like his own community in the Kootenays – were hastily drawn and included non-productive land that hampered the ability of farmers to make a living.