Following a core review of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) by B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett and months of reports of an upcoming bill, the B.C. Government has introduced Bill 24 which divides the ALR in two zones purporting to recognize the Province’s regional differences.

In Zone 1, which would comprise much of the Lower Mainland and include Vancouver Island, the South Coast and the Okanagan, the ALR would be administered substantially the same as it is now.  In these significantly developed areas, Agricultural Land Commission decisions would continue to be focused on protecting farmland.

In Zone 2, which would comprise the Interior, the North and the Kootenays – considered to contain more marginal soil quality – a new section 4.3 of the Agricultural Land Commission Act (British Columbia) would provide the Commission with more “flexibility” to consider “economic, cultural and social values” as well as “regional and community planning objectives”.

The Government also indicated that further changes may be considered to allow “new, limited, value-added farming activities, such as food processing on farmland.”

The specifics of what can be developed under the new rules are currently unclear.

Reaction to the Bill has been mixed, with some commentators applauding the changes while others have denounced the Bill or expressed skepticism.  The size and necessity of the B.C. Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has been a matter of intense debate since its introduction in 1973.  Restrictions on real estate development on lands within the ALR are routinely advanced as stifling economic growth, while supporters feel development should be limited to protect farmers, farmland and domestic food supply chains.

In January, for example, Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, a St. Louis-based research firm, told Business in Vancouver (BIV) that the region’s ALR is largely responsible for high housing prices in Metro Vancouver and that “the leadership of B.C. has placed the preservation of agricultural land at a higher priority than the standard of living of people and the minimization of poverty.”  Conversely, in an article published in BIV in November, Peter Ladner argues that the best way to make the most of the ALR farmland’s economic potential is to start enforcing the existing rules and that Minister Bennett should be strengthening the ALR, not weakening it.