By Anne Russell. What would the Lower Mainland look like today if it wasn’t for the Agricultural Land Reserve?
As the provincial Agricultural Land Commission marks its 40th anniversary this year, it’s a question worth considering.
The ALC, an independent provincial agency with a mandate of identifying and protecting agricultural land by acting as a steward of the Agricultural Land Reserve, was established in 1974.
According to Dr. Lenore Newman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, urban sprawl would now cover virtually all farmland between Vancouver and the Sumas Prairie in Abbotsford if not for the protection of the ALR.
“If the Agriculture Land Reserve hadn’t have been put in place, we would have lost 80 percent of the agricultural land in our region by now,” she contends, extrapolating from the rate at which rural land was being developed for housing, industry, and other urban uses before the ALR was established.
Newman will be speaking about the impact of the ALR as part of the University Lecture Series at UFV on Wed, Feb 5, at 4 pm in the lecture theatre (B101) on the Abbotsford campus. The lecture, titled ALR at 40: Land Loss and Fragmentation in the Fraser River Basin and presented by the UFV Office of Research, is free and the public is welcome.
That’s not to say that the ALR hasn’t been chipped away at over the decades, as landowners’ applications to have land removed were approved by the commission, sometimes with the support of local municipalities.
“In most of the regions, we’ve lost 8 to 10 percent over 40 years,” Newman notes. “That’s not horrible, but it’s also not sustainable.”
She contends that it’s time to make the reserve live up to its name and place a moratorium on removal of land from it, at least in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
“Landowners have had 40 years to make a case that their land should be removed. If it’s still in the reserve, then that’s where it should stay.”
And as various provincial governments put their stamp on the reserve over the years, there have been different definitions of acceptable uses of agricultural land. For example, for several years it was permissible to develop golf courses on ALR land, a practice that Newman says is equal to removing it.
“You’d be better off jackhammering up the Home Depot parking lot and making a farm there than trying to return a golf course to agricultural land, what with all the contouring and other changes they make,” she says.
Land speculation is another challenge that the ALR faces, a problem which would be mitigated by a freeze on removing land from the ALR.
Newman will be assisted in her Feb 5 lecture by Dr. Denver Nixon, a post-doctoral fellow who has been working with her on a research project supported by the Canada Research Chair funds titled Life in Agriburbia, 40 Years of the ALR. Nixon will share mapping research that he has done, showing what land has been taken out of the reserve in the communities south of the Fraser River on a parcel-by-parcel basis over the last 40 years.
The Lower Mainland is situated in what is essentially a very small mountain-ringed valley, Newman notes, with enormous development pressures on it.
“We are at ground zero in some ways, because valley space is so tight and the stakes are so high,” she says. “It is inevitable that we have to consider densifying existing neighbourhoods, developing hillsides, and recycling moribund industrial land. We’re going to have to do all that to handle growth pressure, but we may as well protect what farmland we have left while we are at it. I think most people would prefer to see that happen.”
Newman says that farmland provides more than just the value of the crop produced.
“It also provides green-space, views, wildlife habitat, flood control, water recycling, agri-tourism opportunities, and many economic spinoff benefits.”
She cites the example of having a broccoli farm versus building houses on a piece of land.
“It will cost the local government money to service those houses, but in addition to access to food, a broccoli farm could be part of a local farm festival as well as providing green space.”
Along with the ALR, the University of the Fraser Valley is celebrating 40 years in 2014. This lecture series is one of the special events commemorating the 40th anniversary.