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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Development Group to Defend ALR

    Marco Procaccini

    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.”

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