Development Group to
A lower mainland sustainable development
group is gearing up a campaign to encourage municipalities to protect
agricultural lands and the Agricultural Land Reserve.
Smartgrowth BC, a non-profit group
focussing of sustainable and democratic economic development, says
people have the inherent right of access to food, and that a healthy
food supply is vital to any society or economy. In addition, the group
is concerned that recent legislative changes by the provincial
government could threaten the ALR and with it the fertile farmlands of
the Fraser Valley.
This could jeopardize BC’s agricultural
industry, which the group estimates employs about 200,000 people and
generates roughly $2.2 billion a year.
“Last year the BC government made changes
to the Agricultural Land Commission, which administers the ALR,
creating six regional commissions, with the decision-making about the
ALR now being made at the regional level,” says Shane Simpson,
communications director for Smartgrowth. “The commission now has the
authority to turn land use decisions over to municipal governments”
The BC government says the changes were
made in order to decentralize the decision-making process and move it
closer to the local community level. However, Simpson says at the same
time, the government began off-loading a large number of costs
traditionally borne by the province on to municipalities.
This, he says, added to the massive cuts
in public services and austerity measures causing large-scale layoffs
and economic hardship, particularly in rural communities, has put
pressure on local governments to find other revenue sources in order to
continue to operate. That includes removing agricultural land from the
reserve and turning it over to commercial developers.
“There is about four times as much
property tax revenue from commercial or residential lands as there is
from farmland,” Simpson said. “The BC government has cut funding to
municipalities and downloaded the costs of many services on to local
governments. Now they have to find new revenues.”
He says several municipal governments,
such as Abbotsford, are already looking to remove land from the ALR and
re-zone it for development.
In addition, new pressures on the farming
trade itself are pushing many farmers to support removal of their lands
from the ALR to increase its sale value. In recent years, high interest
rates, expensive technology, unstable food prices and the pressures of
the North American Free Trade Agreement have taken their toll on
farming as a viable profession. Simpson says many farmers, especially
those looking to retire, want to get out.
But Simpson says local governments and
farmers should consider all of the facts and recognize the economic
potential of maintaining the integrity of the ALR and agricultural
lands, and Smartgrowth wants to work with them to develop ways to
generate more revenues from farming.
“Agriculture generates about $760 million
a year for the Fraser Valley,” he said. “That’s a huge
contribution to the local economy.”
Simpson says the group will be working
with municipal governments in the Fraser Valley to develop an agricultural
component in their community business plans. They are also proposing
new economic enterprises, such as agri-tourism, where people pay to see
agricultural activity in action—apparently already successful in other
parts of the country.
He adds that there is the option of
trading non-productive agricultural land in the ALR, which accounts for
about five per cent of the total land base in BC, for development in
return for adding productive or potentially productive land into the
ALR and guaranteeing existing ALR lands will be protected.
Furthermore, Smartgrowth will be
encouraging local governments to set up broad based agricultural
advisory committees to review polices governing the ALR and agricultural
industries and to develop innovations for improving revenues while
maintaining farming standards.
“Non-productive agricultural land in the
ALR as a buffer between urban and rural development,” Simpson says,
adding that the ALR also serves well in the capacity of controlling
urban sprawl, a key concern of all municipal governments in the lower
mainland. “We’re looking for economic development with no net loss to
the ALR. There are better ways to develop our communities than selling
off farmland for development.”