NDP’s manufactured farmland crisis dies on the vine

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has launched the second phase of her remake of an NDP icon, the Agricultural Land Commission.

In a determined push to plow under changes made since the Dave Barrett government hastily imposed the Agricultural Land Reserve in the early 1970s, Popham has introduced a new batch of legislative amendments. It’s an effort to stop what she claims is pressure from speculators, buying farmland and trying to get it sprung from the ALR so they can grow houses on it.

The latest amendments dissolve the regional ALC panels set up to bring local knowledge to the table. The whole show will again be run from Burnaby, with token regional appointees on a central politburo, sorry, commission.

When Popham proudly unveiled the amendments a couple of weeks ago, there was an awkward moment. The bill includes a new definition of “person,” changing it to a provincial or local government or their agencies. People, specifically farmers, will not be persons once the NDP-Green coalition pushes this nanny-state vision through.

It’s awkward because Bill 15 was presented the day before International Women’s Day, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the “persons case” where five pioneering women won the right to vote in Canada. In B.C., women remain persons, unless they’re farmers.

Horrible optics aside, it’s a minor change. Property owners applying to exclude land from the ALR have long had to obtain the view of their local government, to see if an exclusion fits with community plans for roads and utilities. Soon only state entities will be able to apply to remove land, if and when they see fit to judge the property owner’s wishes.

After I reported this, Popham sent me a lengthy statement, including the following:

“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. This volume of applications to review has become burdensome to both local governments and the ALC, since in many cases exclusion applications are not approved as they are for development purposes.”

In other words, local governments and the ALC continue to protect farmland, as required by the “old government” legislation. I asked the ALC for its latest data on this crushing volume of speculator applications since it stopped posting archived decisions after Popham took charge.

In 2018, there was a grand total of 39 applications to remove land province-wide. One of two in the Interior region was approved. On Vancouver Island, four applications flooded in and all were refused. Same in the Kootenay region.

In the Okanagan, the commission grappled with 11 applications, turning away six. On the South Coast, there were 14, with nine refused. The numbers are even lower for 2017. The ALC annual report shows a steep decline in applications since the 1990s.

Here is current ALC staffing: A Popham-appointed chair and 18 commissioners oversee staff consisting of a CEO, director of policy and planning and director of operations. Kim Grout, the current CEO, made $185,096 plus benefits last year.

Under them are three senior policy planners, a policy planner, policy analyst and six planning officers. On the operations side, there are two co-ordinators, four compliance and enforcement officers, an office manager and six technical and support staff.

Popham intends to hire more enforcement “boots on the ground” to cope with the speculator crisis she wants you to think is happening.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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