Land Reserves Are Destructive

Commentary, Government, Nick Zaiac

Life for farmers in agricultural parts of British Columbia can be hard. Winters are long, the weather is unpredictable, and a couple bad years can put even prepared families at risk of losing their livelihoods. Getting through these challenging periods is easier when farmers can diversify their income with activities like small-scale retail and housing rentals. Unfortunately, the Provincial government seems to be moving the other direction. 

Since 2002, the cornerstone of BC’s efforts to regulate agricultural land use has been the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The ALR restricts development on land located at town and city peripheries in order to protect the area from the negative effects of larger developments and commercial projects. It covers about 70 percent of the province’s most arable farmland, but only a fraction of this coverage falls in places where substantial growth threatens the reserve. In fact, about two-thirds of the ALR is located in the interior and northern areas of the province where, given the small size of towns like Fort St. John and Williams Lake, potential sprawl from development is minimal. 

In places where potential growth is already limited, the benefits of the ALR are also limited. After all, land use rules can’t deter development that nobody plans to do in the first place. 

A more regional focus that can accommodate local needs could improve how the ALR operates. However, the Provincial government’s recent actions have pushed things in the opposite direction. New laws passed in 2018 caused rancor among farmers who own properties within the reserve by further tightening use restrictions on ALR land. These new restrictions limit farms to one house per parcel of land — any extra housing units can only be used by farmworkers. Thanks to this rule, a Comox Valley landowner in the ALR was told she could not have a cottage on her own property for her elderly mother and in-laws because she isn’t a farmworker. This law effectively locks BC’s rural housing stock in amber, rendering it unable to change or adapt to the housing needs of area residents, all due to the remote possibility that someday, interior BC towns might start growing again. 

Then in 2019, the Provincial government restructured the Agricultural Land Commission — the land use regulator that governs properties within the ALR — centralizing authority in a province-wide panel. This year’s changes distilled the process of adding properties to and removing properties from the ALR, making it harder for burdened and distressed landowners to 

get variances from ALC rules when they need them. Simply applying to remove a property from the reserve or add a new use now costs a whopping $1,500. 

To be sure, some parts of the ALR do face pressure for development. Suburban Vancouver is one of these areas, but it is already constrained by preserved farmland east and south of the city. Here, the reserve functions as a traditional growth boundary, similar to that which exists in U.S. cities like Portland and Seattle. Yet the ALR differs from its peers in one important way. Portland’s urban growth boundary is managed by a regional planning body, Metro, which is tasked with altering the growth boundary every five years to accommodate a 20-year supply of developable land. Seattle’s boundary is governed by a state law, the Growth Management Act, as part of a comprehensive statewide housing planning mandate applying to local governments. But in BC, the ALC is not part of the Province’s comprehensive planning process. Instead, it has a narrower jurisdiction, parallel to but distinct from provincial and municipal planning processes. 

By duplicating processes that already protect agricultural land in the region where appropriate, the ALC adds costs and regulatory uncertainty for developers and raises costs for homebuyers in metro Vancouver. Elsewhere in BC, farmland owners face a second layer of red tape when making changes to their properties. 

Yet centralizing authority can go both ways. The pre-2019 structure functioned much like Act 250, the planning and land preservation law in the U.S. state of Vermont. There, regional boards proved slow and regularly demanded major concessions in exchange for development rights, generating pressure to centralize decision-making. BC’s new law would give the ALC full authority to add or remove land from the reserve and create panels to advise its decisions. Theoretically, then, a reform-minded ALC could create a panel to compile a list of tracts where the costs of preservation outweigh social benefits of removing properties from the ALR roll. 

Earning money through other land uses, like small-scale services or housing, helps ensure BC’s agricultural landowners have options when nature doesn’t cooperate. But by adding more layers of rules to ALR properties, the BC government has made clear that it believes farmers must only be farmers. And that will make for a lot fewer farmers as time goes on.