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‘Sacrosanct’ Agricultural Land Commission eyed for breakup

Farmworkers harvest cabbages at a farm in Richmond, B.C., November 6, 2013. Documents suggest splitting the ALR into two zones, where different rules would apply. The ALR currently protects all agricultural land across the province, but Mr. Pimm would like to see the land in the Okanagan and Fraser valleys and Vancouver Island in one zone, with land in the Interior, Kootenays and everything north of the Okanagan in a second zone.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's "sacrosanct" Agricultural Land Commission will be effectively dismantled and the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission will assume new responsibilities for land use decisions if a proposal prepared for cabinet is adopted, according to confidential government documents.

Information obtained by The Globe and Mail shows that B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm is preparing to ask cabinet to endorse a plan to "modernize" the ALC, an independent Crown agency, which has overseen and protected about four million hectares of farmland for 40 years. Under the plan, the ALC – long a thorn in the side of developers who want to free up farmland – would move within the Ministry of Agriculture, apparently ending its autonomy from government.

The move reflects the rapid ascendancy of the oil and gas industry in B.C., which has become a prime focus of government.

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"The Agricultural Land Commission legislative mandate is too narrow to allow decisions that align with the priority for economic development," is the message Mr. Pimm will deliver, according to a document labelled Cabinet Decision Summary Sheet.

The document provides a point-by-point description of the steps Mr. Pimm wants to take. It calls on cabinet to allow him to "develop the necessary policy, regulatory and legislative amendments" he needs to implement dramatic change.

Energy Minister Bill Bennett – who earlier this year identified the ALC as a target when he promised the government's core review would "look at some sacrosanct things, like … the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission" – returned a call made to Mr. Pimm' s office.

"It's a cabinet process and you apparently have a cabinet document. I'm not permitted … to talk about cabinet processes and the things that are being discussed," said Mr. Bennett, who is in charge of the core review.

"Nothing that the core review process could potentially do would reduce the protection for farmland in British Columbia," he said. "Bottom line. 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 farmland and the sustainability of farming."

According to a second unmarked document, Mr. Pimm will propose splitting the ALR into two zones, where different rules would apply. The ALR currently protects all agricultural land across the province, but Mr. Pimm would like to see the land in the Okanagan and Fraser valleys and Vancouver Island in one zone, with land in the Interior, Kootenays and everything north of the Okanagan in a second zone.

The move appears designed to allow the government to ease the way for resource development in the northeast, where oil and gas development has increasingly been in conflict with farmers and ranchers.

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Mr. Pimm spent 25 years working in the oil and gas industry before being elected to the provincial legislature. His appointment by Premier Christy Clark as Agriculture Minister was seen as an early sign the Liberal government didn't want the ALC to hinder energy resource development.

Earlier this year, the ALC signed a "delegation agreement" with the BC OGC, giving the agency limited authority to authorize non-farm use of agricultural land. Under Mr. Pimm's proposal, the BC OGC would become the primary authority on deciding whether agricultural land, outside the Okanagan and southwest region, could be withdrawn for industrial use.

Mr. Pimm is also proposing to give local governments more control, calling for "community growth applications [to be] decided by local governments."

The ALC was established in 1974 as concerns grew in B.C. about the 6,000 hectares a year of prime agricultural land then being lost to development. Now about 500 hectares are removed annually.

Follow me on Twitter: @MarkHumeGlobe

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