Frank Leonard stepped into his new job as chair of the Agricultural Land Commission last month with a millstone wrapped around his neck. The B.C. Liberal government had just fired his predecessor, Richard Bullock, for being too outspoken in the defence of farmland. Mr. Leonard's challenge is to establish his independence.
The former mayor of Saanich and onetime president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities has a CV that is long on governance but short on agricultural experience. He grew up with cows across the fence from his home, but he has not made a living in the sector. Now, he is tasked with overseeing the biggest overhaul of protected farmland in 40 years.
The Agricultural Land Reserve is in transition, having just been carved into two zones. The commission, an independent tribunal that is responsible for preserving agricultural land, is now required to provide more flexibility in land use in Zone 2 to allow activities such as oil and gas development. If Mr. Bullock was too steadfast about keeping farmland in the ALR, what are the expectations for Mr. Leonard?
Mr. Leonard spoke with The Globe and Mail after two weeks on the job, in which he commutes from his home in Saanich on Vancouver Island to an urban office in Burnaby.
You are heading out this week to see the farming regions of the province. Most will be in the new Zone 2 designation with the new rules about flexibility. What kind of changes do you expect in your three-year term – will we end up with more farmland in production or less?
There are some changes that will be within my purview, and some changes aren't. We haven't seen the new regulations yet. This is either idealistic or naive, but I'd like to see that people who own farmland are proud to be [a part of] the ALR and they don't feel it is an economic burden – they don't feel they are shouldering a burden for the rest of society. That it is economically viable. I would love to have the pressure taken off for exclusion requests because people found it was viable to stay in the ALR. If my term ends in three years or three weeks, my approach will be the same.
The largest deletion of ALR land in history, I'm told, was done in April for the Site C dam, almost 9,200 acres gone without any input from the commission. Should the commission have had a role in reviewing that decision?
It's a political decision by cabinet. … It's not my decision. I'm going to focus on what we do have authority over and be responsible for those decisions that we make. There are ample politicians in this province and a very engaged community that can debate that decision.
We are seeing with the drought in California an increasing awareness of food security – how important is it to think about what farming needs might be in the decades ahead with climate change probably altering where and what we produce?
I was trying to change public policy 20 years ago on climate change. I have been early to the table on this and I'm really concerned about not only today but generations to come. It certainly affects agricultural land significantly – by definition, it will be extreme. Sometimes there will be too much water and sometimes none at all. The commission will need to listen to our advisers on how we need to adapt to this new reality and to make sure those who own farmland are able to be viable even in the next century of climate change.
How will you address the challenge of the changes the province wants - more flexibility to do things that are not necessarily farming on ALR land?
I will have an open mind. It's not an empty mind, and it is not a closed mind. We'll give those applications that come before us due consideration and they will get a fair hearing. I can't prejudge what decisions will be made by the tribunal, but presumably the regulations will be more permissive.
You came into this job after the government axed the former commissioner for being too independent. You were typecast as the government's lapdog. How do you deal with that?
I have got thick skin. I will be judged on what I do and how I act, not on how others predict I will act. I'm really honoured to have this opportunity. Maybe in politics – and I'm not in politics any more – you can be defined by your opponents. Here, I really think I will be defined by my work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.