Not many British Columbians will recall the significance of April 18, 1973. That was the date the Land Commission Act was passed in BC. Some older farmers will no doubt recall the anger they felt at the ‘land freeze’ that halted subdivision and non-farm use of farmland throughout the province. Some long-retired Regional District Directors may recall the gruelling process of the over 300 public hearings that went into establishing the original Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) boundaries in 18 short months.
Most British Columbians, however, including most current decision-makers, have no memory of BC without the ALR. It’s easy to take BC’s farmland for granted and to forget that only 5% of our provincial land area has the soil and climate capability to grow food. By 1973, it was estimated we were losing about 6000 hectares of farmland a year to development, including transportation corridors and other built infrastructure. It was clear that local governments could not withstand the pressure.
The primary purpose of the 1973 legislation was: ‘to preserve agricultural land for farm use and to encourage the establishment and maintenance of family farms.’ Despite being battered, bruised, attacked and ignored by governments of all political stripes as well as landowners with development aspirations, miraculously, the ALR has survived. Not only does it remain the most successful agricultural land preservation program in North America but, in my opinion, we would not have the option for viable agricultural sectors today in high growth regions like the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan without the ALR.
Its impact has been even more far reaching, however. In 1973, one of the original Land Commissioners was fond of saying ‘the best rural planning is strong urban/community planning’. For the first few decades that held true, as all communities were required to revise their Official Community Plans to redirect growth away from farmlands. In recent decades, however, reduced budgets have seriously limited the capacity to do good land use planning. In many cases, smaller communities have had to rely on the provincial ALR to hold the line against residential sprawl and subsequent increased servicing costs and land use conflicts in their rural areas.
The first Land Commission brochure was entitled, Keeping the Options Open. The ALR has done that – and not only for BC’s farmland. With the current urgent challenges to both provide affordable housing and build climate-resilient communities, the ALR is an unexpected ally.
Like the parallel tracks of a railway, thanks to the ALR, we still have the option in BC to create vibrant, walkable communities with diverse housing close to the amenities people need in their daily lives, surrounded by vibrant, productive rural environments - where local food production co-exists with other compatible uses, such as recreational trails and fish/wildlife habitat, to contribute to local economies and enhanced quality of life for citizens.
Surely, that is an unprecedented achievement for any government program, especially over a 50-year time period. Threats remain, however: some longstanding and familiar in 1973; others new, more complex and not even on the radar screen back then. Through both design – and accident – BC’s ALR has set us on the right path on several counts. It got us to here. But it will require equally good public policy and political courage at every level of government to embrace its wisdom and to meet community land use planning challenges over the next 50 years.
Joan Sawicki participated in the establishment of the original ALR boundaries and has been a vocal defender of the ALR/ALC throughout its 50-year history. In addition to a consulting career in land use planning and natural resource management, Joan served as MLA, Speaker and Minister of Environment during the 1990s.