Lower Mainland politicians registered serious concerns about planned reforms to the Agricultural Land Reserve in a consultation session with B.C. government officials last month.
The province wants to loosen the restrictions on non-farm uses of ALR land to help improve the survival odds of struggling farmers and expects to introduce revised regulations by December.
It’s considering allowing breweries, distilleries and meaderies on farmland, retail sales of food and beverages, and other options to generate extra business revenue from farmland.
The Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley politicians’ concerns are not with the principle of expanded uses to support farmers’ economic viability, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan told Metro’s regional planning and agriculture committee, but that there are “loopholes so big you can drive a truck through.”
Half the ALR land in Metro Vancouver is not currently used for farming and the regional district has actively campaigned for taxation reforms to discourage non-farm uses.
Metro’s submission to the agriculture ministry warns there’s no assurance farmers will benefit from the reforms, rather than non-farm business operators and land speculators.
The submission says existing businesses may be unfairly penalized if looser rules on non-farm uses prompt their competitors to move from industrial or commercial zones where they pay relatively high business property taxes to ALR farmland with low agricultural tax rates.
“The decision would create a ‘slippery slope’ situation that could easily result in an escalation of agricultural land values to the extent that farmers would be unable to afford land in the ALR,” it says.
“I can see all sorts of businesses buying up farmland thinking ‘We can operate our body shop on farmland,'” Delta Coun. Ian Paton said.
Metro opposed most of the proposed changes in its submission, urging the province to shelve them and first bolster enforcement of rules that ban illegal fill dumping on ALR land, retail sale of products that come mostly from off the farm and to deter the building of giant country estate mansions on farmland.
Paton also questioned how any eased business restrictions can be enforced since the Agricultural Land Commission has just two bylaw enforcement officers to patrol the entire province.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves noted wineries already set up on ALR land could conceivably add restaurants and banquet halls that could and should instead be built on commercial land within urban areas, where they’re better served by transit and utilities.
Non-farm uses have been granted in the past but must under the current rules be approved by the ALC.
Steves noted the Ocean Spray berry processing plant in Richmond was approved and built under the existing regulations.
“There are ways of doing these things without opening it up wide open and turning it into a Wild West Show of building anything you want on farmland,” Steves said.
Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner said Surrey is prepared to consider distilleries and breweries on farmland, but not allowing them tasting rooms or to sell alcohol produced off-premises.
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese, who is a turkey farmer, said there’s justification for the government to proceed “cautiously” in encouraging industry on ALR land that directly supports and benefits agriculture, such as processing plants.
Improving farms’ ability to market their products helps ensure they’re not “held hostage by large corporations,” he said.
Some local farms have been innovative in setting up their own processing operations, he noted.
“We have to allow some of this to happen on farmland,” Froese said. “We have to be open to some of this changing face of agriculture.”
Also proposed is allowing anaerobic digesters in the ALR to generate energy from farm-sourced manure and other agriculture waste. Metro says those applications should remain a case-by-case decision of the ALC due to impacts on neighbours.
Regional officials also protested the short four-week period for submissions, which had to be in by Aug. 22.
Metro has also budgeted $20,000 to work with cities, the province and farmers to investigate potential reforms to property tax policies that could spur more actual farming of farmland.