Les Leyne: Want to get property out of ALR? Don’t bother applying

There was another sharp yank last week in the eternal tug-of-war over the Agricultural Land Reserve.

This one — toward preserving the ALR — is just as ingenious as the last big one by the previous government, which went the other way.

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Perennially worried about landowners who try get their property out of the ALR, the NDP government has introduced a new twist in the process — they’re not allowed to apply any more.

It’s breathtaking in its simplicity.

The current law has two sections about applying to get land excluded from the reserve. One deals with how local governments can apply to get it done, the other outlines how landowners can do it.

An amendment introduced last week repeals both options and replaces them with a new system.

Under the new approach, a person may apply to have land excluded if the person is the owner and is: the government of B.C, a local government or first nation, or a prescribed public body.

Interpretations have been flying since it landed.

As it reads, it looks like if you’re not a government or public body of some sort, you can’t apply. You’re not the right sort of person.

It’s an oddly-worded change. Why would the applicant be referred to as a person, when the definition suggests it has to be a government?

And it downplays that there is no language in the amended section about excluding private land from the ALR.

Opposition Liberals started ringing alarm bells over the weekend and the bill is going to prompt intense debate.

“The property owner will no longer have that right [of exclusion] … not even the right to ask,” Liberal MLA Greg Kyllo posted.

The government disputes that interpretation. Landowners already need local government approval. The change just means government applies on their behalf, it says. “The claim that [it] is taking away the rights of farmers as persons is categorically incorrect.”

The change will fob off some responsibility to local governments. If they think an exemption is valid, they will have to pursue it themselves, and face all the arguments that usually erupt.

It also insulates the commission from owners of ALR land who have non-farm ideas for their property.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham introduced the bill by saying exclusion applications will be submitted only by local governments, First Nations or the province. That will further limit speculation involving farmland and protect the ALR, she said.

It will strengthen the independence of the commission “enabling it to better advance its important mandate to preserve farmland.”

It’s a follow-up to the first big ALR move she made, which was to blow up all the B.C. Liberal changes that were read as measures to weaken the protection of farm land.

The previous government enacted a two-zone system where relatively lower-value farmland outside the Okanagan and south coast was treated differently, and regional panels had more say. The premise was that farmers would have more potential value-added ways to use their land to make money, and keep farming, if restrictions were eased.

When the NDP came to power, it ordered a study by avowed critics of that approach. It trashed the B.C. Liberal changes, and the ALR was redesigned soon after. The latest bill is the second phase of that redesign.

The right to apply for an exclusion was considered a relief valve by some. Exclusion requests would often get turned down, but at least they got a hearing.

Now they won’t get a direct hearing. They’ll need a government to apply on their behalf.

There’s speculation this could have been done all at once last year, but Premier John Horgan held off on the more controversial aspects, which are now in the bill.

Popham issued a statement Monday saying: “We want to stop the ‘Swiss-cheesing’ of the ALR, removing small pieces of farmland in many places, because this makes it more challenging to farm and harder for farming communities to thrive.”

But easing challenges was among the reasons farm-land owners cited for applying in the first place. Whether it was valid or not, the option will be off the table.

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