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B.C. pitches separate land zones in reserve and value added for farmers


VICTORIA - Major changes are being proposed for British Columbia's Agricultural Land Commission for the first time since land protection laws were put in place decades ago.

The Liberal government said Thursday the plan preserves the commission's original ideas of protecting farmland through an independent body, but includes changes to allow farmers to gain more value from their lands.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said farmers will now have opportunities to explore value-added agricultural activities on their farmlands, but those opportunities will be subject to reviews by regionally-appointed officials.

The proposed changes represent the first rewriting of the original ALC and Agricultural Land Reserve laws implemented more than 40 years by the former New Democratic Party government of Dave Barrett.

"British Columbians really care about agricultural land and they worry about food security and making sure we don't pave over all of our province," said Bennett. "We get that. But that doesn't mean you should never take a look at the agency."

He said the proposed changes are part of the Liberal government's core review of government spending, which Bennett is leading. Bennett said the changes will help farmers increase their incomes while supporting increased food production.

Examples of proposed value-added agricultural activities were not provided, other than food processing, with Bennett saying the Agriculture Ministry will start talks with the ALC, the agricultural industry and the Union of B.C. Municipalities on the best supports for the new, value-added opportunities.

He said other changes involve dividing the provincial land commission administered zones into two, to better recognize the province's regional differences.

In Zone 1, where land is in greater demand — Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Okanagan — the commission would focus on protecting farmland, while in Zone 2 — Interior, Kootenay and North — farmers would have more flexibility options for their farmland.

Bennett said the land commission will remain a fully independent tribunal and decision-maker on specific land uses within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Opposition New Democrat agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said British Columbians don't want the province split into separate agricultural zones. British Columbians want an independent body that has the duty to protect all agriculture land in the province.

Last year, then-agriculture minister Pat Pimm, who is currently recovering from cancer surgery, called in Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser after one of his northeast constituents constructed a rodeo grounds on farmland that was part of the land reserve.

The land commission had criticized as "inappropriate" Pimm’s efforts on behalf of the local constituent in Fort St. John to have land removed from the agricultural land reserve to build the rodeo grounds and a campsite.

The commission said Pimm’s efforts could give the public and the commission itself the impression that he "was attempting to politically influence the commission."