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Agriculture minister says ALR changes will proceed
Any hope that opponents of proposed government changes B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve had that the legislation would be scrapped appear to have been quashed by Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick.
Despite an avalanche of feedback about the proposed changes—much it negative according to Letnick—he told the Capital News on Friday the legislation, known as Bill 24, along with several amendments he proposed shortly after taking over as minister in April, will be passed in the legislature next week.
"It's a government bill, the government supports it and we will pass it by the end of the (current) session (of the Legislature)," Letnick said. The session ends next Thursday.
While he would not comment on a sparsely attended "emergency" meeting on the proposed changes organized by the NDP in Kelonwa Thursday night, Letnick said he has read every letter and email sent to him about the issue, has met with many groups including the B.C. Agriculture Council, the Agricultural Land Commission and local government representatives, as well as MLAs on both side of the Legislature to gather as much input as possible.
"I've found that most everybody wants to protect good agricultural land for future use," said Letnick, the MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country. "But they also want to help farmers be successful."
The NDP opposes the governing Liberals plan for the ALR.
The government argues that in order help farmers, the rules for the use of some farmland in B.C. —in areas like the Kootenays, parts of the Interior and the north—should be relaxed.
Critics say that will open those areas of protected Agricultural Land Reserve land to development and natural resource extraction and result the loss of valuable farmland in B.C.
The government wants the ALR divided into two zones, with the first, including the Okanagan, the Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island getting more protection from non-agriculture use than agricultural land in the rest of the province.
But the move has ignited a firestorm of protest across B.C.
However, according to Letnick, that level of protest appears, in his mind, to have dropped off in recent weeks. He said he still gets emails and letters opposing the changes but not nearly as many as he did when he first took over from former minister Pat Pimm, who left the agriculture portfolio after the changes were announced and is currently battling cancer.
Letnick said the proposed changes were originally brought forward by both the agriculture ministry and the minister handling the government's "core review," Bill Bennett.
Shortly after taking over as agriculture minister, Letnick said he would consider tinkering with Bill 24 or could even drop it. But Bennett quickly responded publicly that the bill would proceed as it was.
Letnick, however, proposed his amendments to the bill, including allowing the Agricultural Land Commission's chairman, or one of its regional panels, to refer applications to the ALC’s executive committee if the chairman determined a decision could have substantial impact on the ALR. On Friday Letnick said his amendments have been accepted by the government and will be included in what he said will be passed next week.
Earlier this month he admitted public pressure prompted his changes to what was proposed by Pimm and Bennett.
"Bill 24 is also 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)," said Letnick earlier this month. 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 at the time. "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."
With a sizeable majority in the legislature and the government Liberal MLAs supporting Bill 24, even the Opposition NDP expects it will pass next week.
Letnick said there will still be a chance for more public and special interest input because after the bill is passed, the regulations must be created.
"Those give meat to the bones," said Letnick.
He said he will meet again with many of the groups he has already met with as his ministry puts together the regulations. All the information will go onto a website that has yet to be created and the public will get to see it and comment, he added.