The B.C. government’s latest changes to protect agricultural land include a provision to redefine “person” as a local or provincial government.
Amendments to provincial law presented by Agriculture Minister Lana Popham this week mean that farmers can no longer apply directly to the Agricultural Land Commission for any exclusion of land from the reserve.
B.C. Liberal MLA Mike de Jong, a farmer, lawyer and MLA since 1994, said he didn’t believe what he was hearing at first, as Popham introduced the sweeping changes designed to roll back the previous government’s changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve.
A key change is that only the province, local governments or “a prescribed public body” can apply to the newly reorganized ALC for an exclusion of farmland.
The redefinition of “person” in the new bill is “the single most egregious assault on the rights of citizens that I have seen in 25 years,” de Jong said in an interview with Black Press.
“This is the government saying to tens of thousands of property owners, ‘we now believe the ALR is perfect, there will never be any changes, and the only agency that can ever decide to initiate a request is government’,” de Jong said. “That’s absurd. That is as egregious a violation of the rights of a citizen as I’ve seen, to deny them even the right to ask.”
He noted that the decision to exclude farmers from application by declaring them not “persons” is interesting timing, on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the declaration that women are “persons” and can vote. That case is the centre of International Women’s Day in Canada, after a group of Alberta women now known as “the famous five” won the right to vote in 1929.
ALR regulations already require local governments to approve applications to remove farmland from within their boundaries.
Popham issued a statement Friday defending the change.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen people buying land in the ALR, only to turn around and immediately apply to get it pulled out of the ALR so they can develop it,” Popham said. “This volume of applications to review has become burdensome to both local governments and the ALC, particularly since in many cases exclusions are not approved as they are for development purposes.”
The ALC website has archived decisions, but the latest year shown is 2016. For the Vancouver Island zone, there were nine exclusion applications in 2016, including one from the Sooke Community Association, approved by the District of Sooke, to install an artificial turf playing field.
De Jong said the change puts an additional obstacle in the property owner’s path. The local government can submit an application “if they want,” he said. “If they’re not too busy. When they get around to it. There’s no incentive.”
The amendments also reorganize the commission, “adding more compliance and enforcement capacity and tools, including a new offence for landowners who do not produce records when the Agricultural Land Commission orders,” Popham told the legislature Thursday.
Bill 15, to be debated as early as next week, is the second stage of Popham’s reorganization of the ALC and its rules to reverse changes made by the previous B.C. Liberal government.
The legislation drew a quick response from Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier, who has argued that secondary uses keep farm operations viable in winter in his region.
“Another attack on rural B.C. and landowners,” Bernier said. “Why do the B.C. NDP always think Big Brother knows better than the people who actually own and work the land?”
The amendments also eliminate the ALC’s six regional panels and executive committee, creating a single commission with regional representation on it. Popham said that change will “strengthen the independence of the commission.”