Farmland or more homes? The choice is Metro Vancouver’s

Richmond city councillor Harold Steves was instrumental in establishing the ALR

The Agricultural Land Reserve is undergoing the biggest challenge to its mandate in 40 years, with 616 acres of fallow land in Delta becoming ground zero in the battle

UPDATE: On November 5 the provincial government appointed Kim Grout, former chief administrative officer of the municipality of Pitt Meadows, as new CEO of the Agricultural Land Commission. In June, the government fired the last permanent CEO Richard Bullock, an outspoken critic of the government’s changes to the ALR.

The soils are shallow. Less than a quarter of the land is in production. The irrigation, without a source of water nearby, is negligible—and thanks to Boundary Bay, it’s prone to saltwater flooding. “This is not good farmland,” says Sean Hodgins.

Hodgins, a developer and president of Century Group, has a submission before Delta town council to redevelop 616 acres of fallow land—straddling the U.S. border in Tsawwassen—known as Southlands. In November, after four decades of wrangling, Delta town council is expected to approve Hodgins’s plan to build 950 units on the land, which was removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1981. The town of 100,000 has been growing rapidly, with an estimated 20,000 new residents expected over the next two decades. But it has few places to put them, hemmed in by Boundary Bay, the port, the U.S. border and Tsawwassen treaty lands.

The decision to green-light the Southlands proposal doesn’t sit well with Harold Steves. The former MLA and current Richmond city councillor was instrumental in establishing the ALR in the 1970s as a member of Dave Barrett’s NDP government. Four decades later, he remains one of the ALR’s staunchest supporters. “This is one of the biggest agricultural issues facing the province,” says Steves, 79. “It definitely sets a precedent—this was a prime dairy farm and it’s being allowed to deteriorate.”

For Steves and others, the fight over Southlands is about much more than several hundred acres of subpar farmland: it’s about the fate of agriculture in the region. Of the five per cent of land in B.C. that is arable, only 1.1 per cent is considered prime class 1 or 2 alluvial soil—and that’s almost entirely found in the Fraser Delta. The region still produces 60 per cent of the meat and dairy we consume in B.C., along with 43 per cent of our fruits and vegetables. And in the age of climate change, the notion of food security becomes critical, especially as California’s agricultural lands go into decline. “If the Fraser Valley goes away,” says Steves, “there’s no next valley.”

Still, the success of the ALR in providing food security is somewhat mixed. In the Lower Mainland, only half of ALR land is actually farmed. Another quarter is fallow and another quarter can’t be farmed at all: it’s parkland or golf courses, or the topography is unsuitable for agriculture. Furthermore, there is no requirement in the ALR statutes to actually farm—only that ALR-protected land can’t be used for non-farm uses.

Shortly after the B.C. Liberals were re-elected in 2013, the minister responsible for core review, Bill Bennett, called for an overhaul of the ALR and the independent commission that governs it, the Agricultural Land Commission. After three months of consultations, the government rolled out Bill 24, which lengthened the list of non-farming activities that landowners can pursue without going to the commission and gave six new regional panels the power to include “economic criteria” in their assessments. The bill divided B.C.’s ALR land in two. The first zone—the South Coast, part of the Okanagan and Vancouver Island—were exempt from many of the changes, as it was deemed an area with “more development and population pressures.” The second zone—including the Cariboo, the Kootenays and Peace River Valley—was not exempt.

While critics like Steves see the changes as an effective death sentence for farmland, especially outside the Lower Mainland, others argue they’re long overdue—and one way to inject a bit of affordability into B.C.’s unaffordable housing market. “We’re not filling in the water, we’re not cutting down the mountains, so the ALR is the biggest thing that can change,” says Tsur Sommerville, associate professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, who has studied the impact of the ALR on land values in the Lower Mainland. In his 2010 study, Sommerville proposed that removing all restrictions on the development of Lower Mainland farmland would reduce land values by 15 to 20 per cent. “Getting rid of the ALR won’t make the region affordable, but it would certainly address single-family home price pressures in the Fraser Valley.”

But it’s a tradeoff Lower Mainlanders seem unwilling to make. In a 2014 survey by the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., 95 per cent of respondents supported the ALR; 71 per cent said laws protecting the ALR should be strengthened or maintained. For Sean Hodgins, however—who grew up in Delta and whose father, George, acquired the land nearly a quarter-century ago—it’s not an either-or proposition. He says we should preserve farmland—but also be responsive to housing needs: “The ALR is a blunt force instrument, which has its place. But it doesn’t put a fine grain to how it impacts the local community.”