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The Agricultural Land Commission ALC manages 4.7 million hectares of land at arm’s length from governmentJohn Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A government proposal that would redraft the way farmland is protected in the province has raised concerns about the autonomy of British Columbia's Agricultural Land Commission.

For 40 years, the ALC has been managing 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land at arm's length from government. But a cabinet document obtained by The Globe and Mail shows Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm is proposing to move the ALC into his ministry while reassigning some of its powers to the BC Oil and Gas Commission and to local governments.

"Well, that virtually takes the ALC out of the equation," Richard Bullock, chair of the ALC said on Thursday. "I'm not sure where this is coming from or why."

Mr. Bullock said his biggest concern is that local governments would be assigned powers over the use of agricultural land. Asked if he thought that would lead to the erosion of the Agricultural Land Reserve, particularly along the edges of rapidly growing communities, he laughed and said: "Well, I guess you draw your own conclusions on that one."

Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, agreed giving the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission more authority is worrying.

"That's probably the biggest concern because a little over 50 per cent of the ALR is in the north, in the Peace region," he said. "That's not to say that we don't think there's some changes that could and do need to be made, it's just that they need to be made for the right purpose and the major priority has to be protecting agricultural land."

Mr. Boon said any change to B.C.'s ALR "has to be done very, very carefully and I worry if their plan is to take out an independent commission that's kind of a watchdog."

Adrian Dix, leader of the NDP, said the government needs to be open and transparent in its plans for the ALC, especially because Premier Christy Clark did not campaign on revamping the agency. "The Premier and her colleagues in the election campaign didn't say anything about this," he said. "If they are going to make a major change like that . . . tell the public about it and allow for a public debate."

Mr. Dix said the ALC was created by an NDP government 40 years ago, but over the years its role has been reaffirmed by a succession of different administrations.

The news horrified two members of Metro Vancouver's regional planning committee, which was planning to vote Friday on a motion urging the province to protect the ALC and to give it enough money to function properly.

"Turning it over to the oil and gas industry is worse than gutting it entirely," said Harold Steves, a Richmond councillor who is the vice-chair of the committee.

Mr. Steves said Metro is prepared to use whatever powers it has to prevent any farmland from being converted, no matter what happens to the commission.

Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver councillor who is also on the Metro Vancouver planning committee, said the news about the proposed legislation is "exactly what I feared."

She called the potential changes "wholly inappropriate."

Those views were in dramatic contrast to those of people in the commercial real-estate sector, who have been making the case for several years in the Lower Mainland that some of the farmland near the rapidly expanding Deltaport could be better used for distribution centres and other port-serving activities.

The commission is "possibly controlling land that has a higher and better use for a productive economy" in B.C., said Chris MacCauley, a vice-president at CBRE, a global commercial real-estate services firm. "I think we do need to find a balance. As a province we need to look at our key economic drivers. And the port is the third largest employer in the province."

Energy Minister Bill Bennett, who is in charge of the government's core review, said the ALC is being looked at, but he promised B.C.'s farmland would be protected. "There is nothing that we would contemplate that would reduce or undermine the central principle of the Agricultural Land Reserve, which is the protection of farm land and the sustainability of farming," he said.

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