More than 150 attended a public hearing Monday evening on whether to exclude two blocks of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Could NDP government alter Abbotsford plans for industry on farmland?

New agriculture minister has called for more protections of ALR land

Events Tuesday in Victoria could have a bearing on the future of two blocks of agricultural land being considered for exclusion by the City of Abbotsford .

On Monday, dozens spoke at a marathon public hearing regarding a potential application to exclude land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Council, which received a report earlier this year that said the city is running out of room for industrial growth, is considering whether to file applications for two blocks of land currently in the ALR.

The proposal has generated significant opposition, particularly in respect to a block of land in Bradner, just north of Highway 1 and on the city’s border with Langley. The other block is located on good farmland north of Abbotsford International Airport.

Council will vote July 31 on whether to ask the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to exclude the lands. But UFV geography professor Lenore Newman thinks that the decision may be influenced by the election of a government and new agriculture minister that have repeatedly called for stricter protections for farmland.

“It probably should give Abbotsford cause to take a little breath,” she said.

B.C.’s new Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham, founded an organic vineyard and was the NDP’s agriculture critic. In addition to calling for more protection for ALR land, she has been a vocal supporter of small-lot farms like those common in Bradner.

Newman said the “change in the weather” in Victoria could influence thinking regarding applications like that considered by Abbotsford.

“We may see a general direction away from these pre-emptive applications,” she said.

The ALC is a quasi-judicial body removed from government, but the NDP will still have the opportunity to influence how it conducts its business.

Through legislation, it can alter the act and the criteria used to determine whether land can be excluded from the ALR. That’s a long process, though. In the short term, a new government can choose to appoint new commissioners to ALC panels. As the people who interpret the act when making decisions, the relative value they give to, say, raw farmland versus improved land can change a decision.

Newman, a vocal supporter of the need to protect the region’s farmland, says changes to commissioners could have more of an effect elsewhere in the province, though; she said the South Coast commissioners who decide upon local issues are already “very farm-friendly” and “stringent.”

The provincial government also has the power to override the ALC through legislation. In the past, both parties have used that power to remove land from the ALR, although a government can use it to keep property protected. That ability to override the ALC, though, is a power rarely used, Newman said.

Whatever the case, the ALC is likely to be top of mind for Popham. As critic in 2015, Popham blasted the BC Liberals when they fired the then-chair of the ALC, Frank Bullock. His replacement was Frank Leonard, the ex-mayor of Saanich, where Popham also lives. The pair had crossed paths before on the island, and in 2015, Popham criticized Leonard’s appointment, saying he had “no background in agriculture.” Now Popham, along with her NDP colleagues, will have a say in Leonard’s future and those who serve under him.

In the short term, the new government could also choose to alter rules governing certain activities on agricultural land, including the hosting of events. Last year, the commission gave the green light to farm weddings, but it also put limits on the number of such events each location can host. A new government could alter those rules.

In the longer term, the government could alter the legislation that governs the ALC.

“We have the most farm-friendly government we’ve had in a long time, of any stripe,” said Newman, who would like to see the multiple panels revert to a single body for the province and a cooling-off period that would prevent repeat ALR exclusion applications.

It would take months, if not years, for the passing of legislation that would specifically alter the rules that govern how applications like that considered by Abbotsford.

But unlike applications to municipal governments that are evaluated based on the rules in place when the proposal is submitted, if the law changes while the ALC is evaluating an application, the new legislation will form the basis for the decision. That means that even if the City of Abbotsford were to submit a proposal in the next couple months, it could still be subject to future changes to ALC legislation, as long as that law passes before a decision on the application is rendered.

Newman, for her part, thinks some compromise agreement is the most likely result of Abbotsford’s current exclusion process. She thinks it’s likely the city applies to remove some, but not all, the land under consideration, pointing specifically to land located around the area.

For her part, Newman says she is not entirely opposed to all ALR exclusions, particularly if it would be used to house agriculture-related businesses and industry. But she also suggested more work could be done to remedy brownfield sites around the city.

Popham was not available for comment and Leonard did not respond to a request for an interview.


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

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Our story in Wednesday’s paper misquoted Cherry Groves. After saying, “Abbotsford doesn’t need Bradner for industry,” Groves said “and Bradner doesn’t need or want industry,” not “Abbotsford doesn’t need or want industry.”

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Lana Popham has been appointed the province’s new minister of agriculture. File photo

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