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TWO OLD GUYS: Either we preserve and value farmland, or we don’t

The Peace River Regional District recently held a series of open houses throughout the area in order to introduce the latest version of the official community plan, OCP for short, for the northern fringe area.
A field of wheat waiting for harvest north of Fort St. John.

The Peace River Regional District recently held a series of open houses throughout the area in order to introduce the latest version of the official community plan, OCP for short, for the northern fringe area. This includes a large chunk of the area surrounding Charlie Lake.

Having participated on the advisory committee in the previous OCP for the northern fringe, this Old Guy (Rick Koechl) put in hundreds of volunteer hours between 2006 and 2010 on that plan. It was not always the most pleasant experience but worthwhile nonetheless. It was a positive way to give back to the community.

The previous OCP, finalized and passed in 2010, did manage a number of successes. A deferred tenure on any additional oil and gas development on 187 square kilometres in the North Peace fringe was initiated and put into policy. As a result, hundreds of homes and farmland are now protected from additional intrusion by the industry.

The intent was to preserve and protect any productive, agricultural lands from further subdivision or industrial development when and wherever possible. Ms. Claire Negrin, area planner for the PRRD, was quoted in the Alaska Highway News recently, stating that the priority of the newest OCP was also not losing farmland. She commented that the newest policies were designed to make it more difficult to subdivide and take farmland out of the agricultural land reserve.

Clearly, these stipulations benefit all residents and protect farming in our community. It becomes a balancing act about our own food security that requires continuous fine tuning. In spite of this, certain parcels of land have indeed fallen between the cracks.

Take one agricultural parcel in particular: SE 11-84-20 W 6.

In 2009, the advisory committee for the previous OCP, along with Arthur Hadland, agronomist, Jim Collin, farmer, rancher and former Agricultural Land Commissioner, Maurice Fines, local grain and oil seed producer, and Larry Houley, Area C electoral director at the time, took a bus trip around the fringe zone.

We arrived at this particular parcel and questioned whether it was suitable for removal from the ALR and good for low density subdivision? The answer was a resounding and unanimous no. This parcel is productive and has been for at least 60 years, and therefore should remain in the ALR. The property has been farmed continuously by three generations of the same family. In 2016, the land produced 53 bu/acre of canola. In 2017, the same parcel produced 62 bu/acre of wheat. By their standards, this field produced above average crops.

The decision rendered regarding that piece of prime farmland on the bus in 2009 as protected farmland did not last long, however. By the time the final version of the 2010 OCP was issued, somehow that one specific quarter section of farmland was now re-zoned into 10 acre residential lots.

So, how did this change of script happen? I was told by a bureaucrat at the PRRD that our advisory committee of agricultural experts were not the final word and that other public meetings would have affected the final outcome. Surprisingly, after I asked for the minutes of those subsequent meetings, I did not receive any further information about this change.

I believe that most residents in the North Peace fringe understand Ms. Negrin’s points about conserving farmland. The new OCP states that it wants to save farmland, has a mandate to conserve farmland by the province, but then proceeds to allow a piece of prime farmland to be subdivided. Where is the rationale for that?

We are in the process of losing an estimated 16,000 acres of agricultural land in the Peace River valley with the Site C dam. Each remaining parcel should be treated like gold. Yet, the latest OCP is now suggesting that this once prime agricultural quarter section at SE 11-84-20 W 6 should be further rezoned into four-acre parcels. This appears to be just as irrational and hypocritical as the earlier decision of 2010.

Either we preserve and value farmland or we don’t. We, the public, once again are lacking transparency from our government representatives and deserve better. We don’t need platitudes telling us that farmland is valued when apparently it isn’t.

Rick Koechl is a recently retired teacher of the Peace with an enthusiasm for politics and energy. Mike Kroecher is a long time retired resident of the Peace, expressing his deep roots in the land through his art. 

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[Correction: BC Hydro has previously said an estimated 6,469 hectares of agricultural land, or roughly 16,000 acres, would be lost due to the Site C reservoir, realignment of Highway 29 and the construction of access roads, not the 28,000 acres as originally stated in this article.The government removed 5,340 hectares, or roughly 13,000 acres, from the agricultural land reserve in April 2015 for the dam's reservoir.]