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Province to split ALR into two zones

The Agricultural Land Reserve is being divided into two zones, with regulations to come to allow non-farm home-based businesses outside the southwest regions of high productivity.

The changes affect three of the six regional panels of the Agricultural Land Commission, for the Interior, Kootenay and North regions. Details will be worked out in consultation with industry and placed in regulations, said Bill Bennett, the cabinet minister in charge of the government’s core review of programs.

Non-farm uses will not be considered in the Island, South Coast and Okanagan regions, but “value added” activities such as food processing on farmland are being considered across the province, Bennett said.

But Coun. Harold Steves, who co-founded the Agricultural Land Reserve, criticized the change.

While the province said the change will permit farm processing on farmland, Steves noted: “It’s already permitted. You don’t have to change two zones to do that. You don’t have to water the act down to allow agricultural processing.”

An example of that in Richmond is the Ocean Spray cranberry processing facilities along No. 6 Road and Westminster Highway, which were permitted on agricultural land.

Bennett and Steve Thomson, acting agriculture minister, reiterated their assurances that the ALC will continue to operate independently. Commissioners are appointed by cabinet, two or three per region, and decisions can be appealed to the regional chairs who act as an executive.

Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington called the Interior zone change “deceitful and a betrayal of the public trust,” and accused the government of removing its obligation to consult with the ALC chair on new panel appointments.

NDP agriculture critic Nicolas Simons was forced by the speaker to withdraw the term “deceitful” from his remarks in the legislature, as he accused Bennett of keeping the changes secret until after last year’s election.

“The fundamental principle is that the reserve was set up for the entire province, not for zones here and zones there,” Simons said.

Bennett said the only change to the Interior zones is the addition of “social and economic” factors in considering permitted uses. He gave the example from his Kootenay constituency of a market garden operator who was refused permission to build a second home on an unproductive part of the property so the next generation could take over the business.

Rhonda Driediger, chair of the B.C. Agricultural Council and operator of Driediger Farms in Langley, said she is looking forward to the changes that will allow development of new revenue.

“The ALC is old and it hasn’t been updated in a long time,” Driediger said. “On a day-to-day basis it makes it very difficult in farming, especially when you’re looking to be progressive.”

Faye Street, general manager of Kootenay Livestock Association, congratulated the ministers “for having the three Bs in the male anatomy to get this done – starting at the brain, backbone and work your way down.”

Street said young farmers are not entering the industry under the current conditions, and allowing them supplementary income will help maintain the farmers.

But Steves noted that although there are cold winters on farmland outside the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, that’s more than made up for by the hotter summers, and better access to water for irrigation in areas such as the B.C. Interior and Peace River area.

Cache Creek was in the 1940s and 1950s considered the tomato capital of Canada, Steves pointed out.

Steves is also worried about the return of local panels in making ALR decisions.

“After years of trying to get rid of them, now they’re back.”

The problem is that local panels comprise locally-appointed people, who may be more susceptible to lobbying by those seeking to have their land removed from the reserve.

—with files from Martin van den Hemel

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