Richmond Coun. Harold Steves helped found the ALR 40 years ago and is vice-chair of Metro Vancouver's regional planning and agriculture committee.

Farmland defender Steves sees red over ALR threats

Fears grow for future of ALC, Metro Vancouver powers to control sprawl

Metro Vancouver’s determination to protect scarce agricultural land is in for a test as two local cities push to reclassify farms for development and the provincial government eyes radical changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, who helped found the ALR 40 years ago, says the recent moves send an unfortunate signal that the firm line of the past may soon crumble, making trade in farmland very lucrative.

“The speculators are out buying up land already,” said Steves.

He pointed to a 130-hectare parcel of ALR farmland in south Richmond listed for sale this year at $55 million – at least double its agricultural value.

Steves recently spoke to prospective Asian buyers of the Gilmore Estates property, who he said had no idea what the ALR was or its relevance to their potential investment.

There are points all over the region where farmland defenders say agriculture is under attack.

The most prominent is Delta’s controversial Southlands development, which was approved by the local council last week and will go to an eventual vote of the Metro board.

The 217-hectare parcel of Tsawwassen agricultural land is outside the regional growth plan’s urban containment boundary and redrawing the line to allow construction of 950 homes and change the land designation from agricultural to general urban will take a two-thirds weighted vote of Metro directors.

Langley Township is also at odds with Metro, which has rejected the township’s plan to develop a “University District” of homes and shops on farmland near Trinity Western University.

Metro and the municipality are in court over whether the growth plan supersedes the community’s plan. Metro also rejected development plans in two other swathes of ALR farmland in Langley this fall.

Steves also opposes a plan in Port Moody to redevelop the former Ioco oil refinery lands, which he said will have the domino effect of removing industrial land and putting more pressure on farmland elsewhere from the port or industrial users.

On top of the internal tussling between local cities and the region over the growth strategy comes the province’s core review, which in part targets the Agricultural Land Commission.

Cabinet documents leaked last week suggested the ALR could be split into two zones, with an “anything goes” mandate in Interior areas beyond the Okanagan.

It also indicated the ALC could be modernized by moving it inside the agriculture ministry and that community growth applications could be decided by local governments.

Giving more control over farmland development to local cities and presumably taking it away from the regional district and the ALC would open the door to much more farmland alienation, Steves warned.

“That would effectively pit one community against the other in a rush for urban growth, expanding urban sprawl throughout the region.”

Steves called the apparent plans to end the ALC’s independence and alter the ALR an “amazing about face” so soon after an election by a government that had previously reviewed the commission and okayed a strategy to strengthen it and increase its budget.

Bill Bennett, the minister heading the core review, has denied major changes to the ALR are in the offing.

Metro’s regional planning and agriculture committee last Friday voted to call on the province to ensure the core review protects and enhances both the ALR and an independent ALC, and to reconfirm the ALC will get $4 million over three years to provide better oversight of ALR lands.

“It’s extremely important that the land commission be independent,” said Steves, who is vice-chair of the committee.

“We’re in for a major test of both the regional growth strategy and the Agricultural Land Reserve in the Metro Vancouver area,” he added. “These are major issues ahead of us that are a threat to food security in the region.”