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Agriculture minister admits public pressure prompted changes to ALR plan
B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick says he decided to change the proposed law to alter how farmland is managed in B.C. after hearing from the public and the province's agricultural sector.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Letnick, MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country and a former B.C. agriculture minister who has only been on the job this time for a month, called the feedback he quickly gathered after replacing Pat Pimm in portfolio as "diverse as the province itself."
“The amendments allow the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) chair or regional panel to refer applications to the ALC’s executive committee, if the chair determines that a decision could have substantial impact on the ALR," said Letnick.
The executive committee consists of the chairman and the six vice-chairs, one from each region.
He added criteria will be clearly defined in regulation and could include applications with inter-regional significance, major land or large infrastructure considerations, new types of applications that have not been considered before or when the local panel determines it is best heard by the provincial committee.
Under Pimm, the province proposed dividing the province into two separate zones, protecting farmland in areas like Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan, but giving farmers in other areas more flexibility when it came to development proposals.
Letnick said the government received many complaints and concerns, some of which focused on food security, and that was why he proposed changes to the bill.
“Bill 24 also is being amended to clearly outline, in priority order, the criteria the commission must consider in all land-use decisions in zone 2 (the North, Interior and Kootenays). This priority list will begin with whether the ALC considers the proposal to meet with the purposes of the commission, namely the preservation of agricultural land, encouraging farming and enabling farm use on agricultural land," said Letnick. "All other factors would follow in descending order of priority. This change is intended to confirm the ALC’s priority remains preserving farming and ensuring panels make decisions in the best interests of agriculture."
He added he did not feel a "one-size-fits-all" approach to managing farmland in a province as large and diverse as B.C. would work.
“British Columbians want the (Agricultural Land) commission to continue making independent decisions, with preservation of farmland as its number one priority, said Letnick. "These amendments to Bill 24 ensure those views are clearly written in law.”
But while some, including the Opposition NDP, still oppose the government's plan to alter the ALC rules—rules they believe could result in the loss of farmland—the chairman of the B.C. Agriculture Council called Letnick's amendments “a step forward.”
Stan Vander Waal said council directors and members played a key role in the consultation process that lead to the changes and while the council did not get everything it wanted, it was a start.
But the council—the first group Letnick met with after he was named to minister last month—continues to oppose two zones for the ALR.
In addition to securing amendments to Bill 24, the council, which represents approximately 14,000 B.C. farmers and ranchers negotiated two significant commitments from government, said Vander Waal.
“Minister Letnick has committed to directly engage BCAC in the development of regulations and practices for Bill 24. He has also committed to formally engage a working group of B.C. farmers and ranchers to explore the feasibility and implications of adopting an overall net benefit to agriculture policy for decisions relating to the ALR” he added.