RICHMOND – Changes are coming to what’s allowed within the Agricultural Land Reserve, but ongoing fallout from regulations introduced last winter following the passage of Bill 52 are prompting the province to give landowners a heads-up.
“There’s a sense of urgency on some of these issues that would make us want to move quickly,” assistant deputy minister of agriculture James Mack told a gathering of farmers institute representatives in Richmond on November 29.
The meeting, the second annual gathering of farmers institutes organized by BC agriculture minister Lana Popham, marked the final bilateral meeting in a public consultation process on supporting farming in the ALR that began September 19 in Merville. The consultation included eight public meetings that attracted 626 people as well as an online survey that drew 1,832 responses. Bilateral meetings were held with stakeholder groups.
“People really doubted whether this process was authentic,” Mack said. “We have an accountability to show authenticity by actually doing some stuff, quickly.”
Signalling future directions is part of being publicly accountable. A summary report of what was heard during the consultation will also be published.
“We are trying to change and engage with people and give people a heads-up,” he said. “They’ll know what we heard, and [have] a sense of where we’re going from here.”
Secondary residences, fill and value-added activities were among the key issues during the consultation, Mack told institute representatives.
“If anything was a big, dominant theme, it was that one,” Mack said of secondary residences, noting that modular homes were a primary example. And it wasn’t just limits on the homes themselves that were a concern; it was how the new regulations affected farmers’ ability to get insurance, loans and other benefits of property ownership.
Residences were also a key issue for new entrants, as well as facilitating knowledge transfer between generations.
“What we heard was the issue with new entrants today is actually about residences,” he said.
The signalling Mack promised came in the form of remarks from the agriculture minister herself, who told the 35 farmers’ institutes represented at the meeting that her staff are exploring the potential of allowing all landowners in the ALR to have a second home without the need for the Agricultural Land Commission’s permission. These could include mobile homes and carriage houses, but whether permanent structures will be allowed hasn’t been announced.
Property owners would simply need to register the second home with the commission. Permission would still be required for third, fourth and further homes for farm workers, however.
Popham also said landowners who use fill for activities such as resurfacing driveways could also be exempted from having to tell the land commission what they’re doing.
“We’re also considering removing the notice of intent requirements for fill that’s being dumped on the Agricultural Land Reserve but is a low-risk activity,” she said.
In addition, the $1,500 application fee the ALC requires from landowners could be reduced significantly to mitigate the financial and emotional stress on smaller landowners.
The fee, introduced in 2016, aimed to recoup about 40% of processing costs. A briefing note Mack wrote for former agriculture minister Norm Letnick described the fee as “a reasonable balance in supporting the ALC to fulfill their mandate of protecting famland and helping BC farmers look at opportunities to enhance their agricultural incomes.”
Popham told the farmers’ institutes it didn’t measure up.
“It certainly doesn’t recover the amount work that goes into processing those applications – it would be way higher if it did – and so if it’s not reflecting that work anyway, maybe we decrease it to reflect on the affordability of people in British Columbia,” she said.
To communicate future changes affecting ALR landowners, Popham is exploring distributing information in partnership with BC Assessment via assessment notices each January and other regular mailings.
The meeting with farmers’ institutes marked the end of a stakeholder engagement process that began in September. The results will guide new regulations giving force and effect to Bill 15, passed this spring, among other changes.
“The urgent [goal] is to think about some flexibility right now, and in government “right now” means early next year,” Mack told he meeting. “We’re really looking first thing in the new year to get out and … give some clarity to people.”
He also promised staff would keep listening to growers’ concerns.
“We don’t want to do all this engagement and suddenly disappear,” he said. “We’re going to keep doing engagement.”