The current debate in Abbotsford over the municipal government’s application to remove over 900 acres of farmland from the province’s agricultural land reserve should be of concern to all British Columbians.
Although many elected officials at all three levels of government refuse to acknowledge it, the application illustrates the pressure that immigration/population growth is putting on a very limited supply of B.C. farmland. The message is universal. The pressure to convert precious and scarce farmland to industrial and residential use is everywhere. But in Canada, it is easily avoidable because it is largely driven by immigration levels which can and should be reduced dramatically.
Theoretically, B.C.’s farmland is protected by provincial legislation. For almost 30 years, one administrative body controlled all decisions. But recent changes have given control over farmland protection to several regional bodies. Critics have repeatedly expressed the concern that smaller regional bodies would not have the perspective of a larger body and would bow to regional pressures.
As many B.C. residents know, B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve was established in the mid-1970’s in order to preserve B.C.’s farmland. It is the only such reserve in Canada. Although B.C. is Canada’s third largest province with an area of almost 1.4 million square miles (almost 2.3 million square kms.), only about 5% of its area is classified as farmland. Most of this “farmland” is rangeland. Only about 1% of B.C.’s total area is actually suitable for growing crops. A favourable climate makes it the best farmland in Canada.
Most of B.C.’s best farmland is located in the area just outside Vancouver. This area, like Canada’s two other major immigrant-receiving areas, has faced major population growth since the advent of Canada’s mass immigration policy 15 years ago. For example, Greater Vancouver’s population has risen from 1.4 million to over 2.1 million in that period. The areas outside Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal face additional major potential population growth over the next 20 years. In the area outside Vancouver, predictions are that the population of the combined Greater Vancouver-Fraser Valley areas will rise from 2.6 million to 4 million in that time frame.
Very few public officials seem to be aware that the most significant factor in the population growth of these three areas over the past 15 years has been immigration. Very few elected officials have publicly opposed the growth.
In fact, like the President of The University College of the Fraser Valley who spoke at a public meeting in Abbotsford last week, most elected officials (and academics) think the population increase is inevitable. The similarity between the views of elected officials who represent “growth” interests and university administrators with similar interests in the “growth” of their own academic “empires” is striking and disturbing.
At the same time that elected officials proclaim the inevitability of growth, they announce the inevitability of spending billions of public dollars on new bridges and other transit measures to move greatly increased numbers of people around their jurisdictions.
Here are the words of the most eminent U.S. economists who studied extensively the subject of population growth in the U.S in the early 1970’s and who, one might expect, would favour population growth:
“We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing argument for continued national population growth. The health of our economy does not depend on it. The vitality of business does not depend on it. The welfare of the average person does not depend on it.”
This eminent group might well have added that continued population growth and the continued existence of precious farmland are incompatible.
Canada’s immigration minister (who has recently proclaimed the economic benefits of immigration, despite Canadian government research to the contrary) and her like-minded in all three levels of Canadian government should take note.
The following article on a public meeting over the application to remove agicultural land from B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve recently appeared in The Abbotsford News.
Land grab or prudent plan?
By JOE MILLICAN
An intrusion that threatens agriculture and creates urban sprawl, or the means to ensure long-term progress and prosperity? It is the answer to that question that will shape Abbotsford’s future for the next 20 years.
The provincial Agricultural Land Commission was left with much to mull over on Thursday night as approximately 70 speakers debated for three and a half hours the pros and cons of pulling 930 acres from Abbotsford’s Agricultural Land Reserve.
The city wants the extra land, as part of its City in The Country Plan, to ensure there is enough industrial space over the next two decades to cope with a predicted population boom and the subsequent job demand.
Those against the proposal argue it is wrong to replace farmland with industrial acreage, and claim the city could make better use of the industrial land it already has.
Approximately 150 people packed into the Salvation Army’s Cascade Community Church, on Delair Road, to voice their opinions to representatives from the Agricultural Land Commission – the body that will decide whether to approve or reject the application.
And while a higher percentage of people did vote in favour of the proposal, the message was not clear-cut, with more than one-third of the speakers protesting the city’s plan.
Kevin MacNaney, acting executive director of SmartGrowth B.C., told ALC commissioners Abbotsford must “intensify” its current industrial development.
Susan Ames, chairwoman of the ALR Preservation and Enhancement Strategy Committee, said that less than 0.6 per cent of B.C. farmland is designated “class one” – the highest quality of all farmland. Some of the land in the Abbotsford application – mainly in the vicinity of the airport – is designated as class one, she pointed out.
Abbotsford resident Lynn Perrin said she has attended avian flu workshops that stated the disease spread so quickly in the Fraser Valley last year because of the close proximity of farms. That situation would only worsen with the reduction of farm land, she said.
Dave Sands, formerly of the Ministry of Agriculture, said: “If you take away the farmland then you take away the farmer.”
The mood changed during the second half of the meeting.
UCFV president Skip Bassford justified the plan by saying “growth is rapid and is inevitable” and “we must plan for balance to ensure livability and sustainability.” There is also a “lack of adequate industrial land in Abbotsford,” according to Bassford.
Abbotsford resident Sat Gill said removing 930 acres from Abbotsford’s 67,000 acres of farmland is justified. “The key is finding a balance between social and economic needs and I believe this plan does both.”
Some speakers feared that if the application was turned down, future industrial development would be limited and the tax burden would be handed to Abbotsford’s residents and farmers.
Others favoured the plan because it considers Abbotsford as a whole, and would not require the city to return to the ALC in the future to request further land exemptions from the ALR.
A number of Abbotsford farmers attended the meeting, and many of those said they are already struggling – some due to poorer lands and some due to increased competition from overseas.
“If a farmer can not make a viable living off his land you must not hold him hostage.
“You must give him the opportunity to do something else with his land,” one man said, referring to the fact those who own a parcel of the 930 acres will recoup more if they sell it for industrial rather than agricultural use.