How the ALR was Established
In the late 1960’s and early 1970's, nearly 6,000 hectares of prime agricultural land were being lost each year to urban and other uses. The provincial government responded to this erosion of the agricultural land base by introducing BC's Land Commission Act on April 18, 1973.
The Commission, appointed by the Provincial government, established a special land-use zone – the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) – to protect BC's agricultural land.
The 4.7 million hectares of the Reserve were identified between 1974 to 1976 through cooperative efforts with regional districts and member municipalities. Local input was gained through a public hearing process. Despite boundary changes over the decades, the Reserve remains approximately the same size (5% of the province).
Scientific Basis for the ALR
The ALR boundary is based on biophysical information related to the natural characteristics of the land and its climate. The intention was to set boundaries on objective technical characteristics, rather than on the variables of the market and other socioeconomic conditions. The Commission used the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) as a uniform, province-wide land classification to fairly and equitably identify the zone. Regional governments submitted Agricultural Land Reserve plans to the Commission based on ALC guidelines and on maps, provided by the BC Department of Agriculture, which identified lands that have the soil/climate combination to support agriculture, and that were not already urbanized or otherwise irreversibly alienated.
Highlights from the first 25 Years of Preserving Foodlands
Creating the ALR: 1973 to 1976
BC’s Land Commission Act came into effect April 18, 1973. A new Commission, appointed by the Provincial government and working in partnership with local governments, established a special land use zone to protect BC’s dwindling supply of agricultural land – an "Agricultural Land Reserve." Reserve boundaries were based on the capability and suitability of the land, its present use, local zoning and input from public hearings. ALR plans for 23 of BC’s 28 regional districts were completed by 1975; in total they protected the 5% of BC judged to be most critical to the province’s food production.
Focusing on Agriculture: 1977
The primary objective of the original Land Commission Act was to preserve agricultural land and encourage the establishment and maintenance of farms. Secondary objectives were to create parks, acquire greenbelts and assemble land for urban and industrial uses. In 1977 these secondary responsibilities were dropped because they duplicated the efforts of other public agencies.
Growing Public Support: from 1978
The normal business of the Commission was often overshadowed in these years by Cabinet’s approval of controversial development proposals. Gloucester Industrial Estates in Langley, the Terra Nova proposal in Richmond, the Spetifore property in Delta and several others became the focus of heated public debate, locally and across BC. These debates served to reaffirm, rather than weaken, the public’s commitment to protecting agricultural land and the ALC continued to enjoy widespread support. For example, an opinion survey in 1997 found that more than 80% of British Columbians considered it unacceptable to remove land from the ALR for urban uses.
Reviewing ALR Boundaries: 1980 to 1984
The Commission initiated comprehensive reviews of ALR boundaries during this period, using new maps and better soil information. Eastern Vancouver Island received special attention because of its unique and varied topography. The Commission found these reviews to be more effective than adjudicating individual applications. They also demonstrated the importance of a comprehensive land-use planning approach. The Commission continues to refine ALR boundaries all over BC as part of an ongoing review of community plans and land use applications.
Dealing with Golf Courses: 1988 to 1992
Between 1988 and 1991, the provincial government of the day initiated policy changes that removed golf courses as one of the uses that the Agricultural Land Commission could approve in the ALR. By November 1991, the Commission was facing 181 golf course proposals, covering 8,400 hectares of ALR land, many with residential components and resort hotels. Concerned about the increasing alienation of farmland near urban areas, the provincial government instituted a moratorium, ultimately allowing 89 proposals, subject to compliance with local government bylaws and conditions set by the Commission. The remaining proposals were disallowed, and golf courses were removed as outright uses in the ALR.
Creating a New Role for Cabinet: 1993
The Agricultural Land Commission Act originally allowed direct appeals of ALC decisions to the provincial Cabinet. Advocacy bodies, landowners, the Canadian Bar Association, politicians, academics, the media, members of the general public and numerous other groups and individuals criticized this process, arguing that these appeals circumvented administrative fairness and due process, and undermined the Commission, which consisted of experienced people appointed by Cabinet and staffed by professionals. Acknowledging these criticisms and recognizing the potential pitfalls of Ministers reviewing complex decisions, the government of the day eliminated appeals to Cabinet in 1993.
Renewing the Mandate: 1994
The Agricultural Land Commission Act was amended in 1994 to strengthen the role of local governments and improve administrative procedures. The Commission was also permitted to delegate approval of some applications to local governments, on condition that agricultural plans and bylaws supportive of agriculture were in place. Requirements were also introduced to guarantee public input before exclusion applications were decided. The Commission’s mandate was also broadened to include a more active role in local land-use planning.
Putting Key Pieces Together: 1995 to 1996
Research and lessons from other jurisdictions showed that the protection of farmland was most effective when four independent, jurisdiction-wide programs were working in concert:
- creating a zone where agriculture had first priority (in BC, the ALR);
- ensuring the tools existed for managing urban growth (in BC, the Growth Strategies Act);
- allowing farmers to farm (in BC, the Farm Practices Protection (Right to Farm) Act); and,
- providing supportive tax policies (in BC, BC Assessment farm tax class).
In 1995 and 1996 these elements finally came together in BC, to better ensure that the province's finite supply of farmland would be protected in perpetuity.
"Provincial Interest" and the ALR: 1998 to 1999
Defining "Provincial Interest" (1998)
In July of 1997, the Commission declined an application to exclude 136 hectares of the Six Mile Ranch west of Kamloops from the ALR to permit several residential and resort-related uses. The Commission took into account the land’s prime soils and excellent climate, rejecting the argument that the development’s benefits would offset negative impacts on agriculture. In its decision, however, the Commission offered to consider a smaller-scale proposal that could provide more direct benefits to agriculture.
During the fall of 1997, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food hired facilitator Murray Rankin to develop "options" for the project. Mr. Rankin's report included a slightly revised site plan and a significantly revised set of compensation measures. His report also recommended that the Province invoke Section 40 of the Agricultural Land Commission Act and declare the project to be in the "provincial interest."
In January 1998, Cabinet declared the project to be in the "provincial interest" and commissioned David Perry to conduct hearings on the matter and prepare a report. At those hearings, in Kamloops and Vancouver, Commissioner Perry heard more than 500 submissions, most in opposition. Commissioner Perry then recommended that Cabinet approve the Six Mile application subject to the implementation of specific benefits to counteract the expected losses to agriculture. He further recommended that guidelines be developed to define "provincial interest."
In May, the Province asked Dr. Moura Quayle, then-Dean of Agricultural Sciences at the University of British Columbia, to lead stakeholder consultations on how to define and use "provincial interest" under the Agricultural Land Commission Act. Among the large group of individuals and organizations Dean Quayle consulted were the BC Agriculture Council, the Union of BC Municipalities, the BC Institute of Agrologists, and the Agricultural Land Commission. Dean Quayle circulated a discussion paper in July and held a Vancouver workshop in August reviewing several options for the definition of "provincial interest." Dean Quayle then submitted her report, Stakes in the Ground, to the Provincial government in September.
The Agricultural Land Commission acknowledged the need to clarify this section of its Act, and welcomed the consultation and discussion.
"Provincial Interest" and the ALR (1999)
The provincial government clarified “provincial interest” with the 1999 Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act. The amendments were designed to:
- clearly define "provincial interest" and when the authority can be used;
- amend the "balancing test" to confirm that agriculture is the first priority for any consideration (under these sections of the Act) about the use of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve; and,
- add procedural requirements to better ensure decision-making is informed, open and accountable.
"Provincial interest" is defined as the public interest of all British Columbians concerning the preservation of agricultural lands and includes the following characteristics:
- province-wide context;
- long-term consequences;
- open and accountable decision-making; and
- the preservation and management of scarce and important provincial assets.
The "balancing test," used to determine whether a proposal in the ALR is in the "provincial interest," was amended to honour the following values, in descending priority:
- preservation of agricultural lands and the promotion of agricultural uses;
- environmental and heritage values if they cannot be replaced or relocated to another non-agricultural site, or if they result in a no net loss to the agricultural capabilities; and,
- other economic, social and cultural factors.
The legislation included additional provisions to improve the process for determining whether a proposal is in the "provincial interest." For example, it commit government to holding hearings in six regions of the province when seeking public input into whether Cabinet should over-ride an ALC decision. The legislation also outlined new requirements for reporting — by the proponent, the Commission and government during a "provincial interest" consideration.
The legislation was intended to improve the decision-making while respecting the Commission and government’s interest in preserving farmland and encouraging agriculture.