Annette LeBox and former NDP MLA Michael Sather oppose removal of farmland on 203rd Street from Agricultural Land Reserve. (THE NEWS/files)

Annette LeBox and former NDP MLA Michael Sather oppose removal of farmland on 203rd Street from Agricultural Land Reserve. (THE NEWS/files)

Councillor pitches new plan to protect farmland

Maple Ridge puts forward land trust model to stop erosion of ALR

Maple Ridge Coun. Gordy Robson is pitching a new plan to protect farmland in B.C., and so far it has the support of his council.

On Tuesday night, council passed Robson’s motion: “That the Agricultural Land Commission be asked to explore the use of a land trust model to acquire farmland that would be made available to qualified parties for farm purposes, noting that the Davison Farm in Maple Ridge is currently available for purchase and could be used as a pilot project for such a trust.”

Robson explained that it was an idea gaining traction in the Lower Mainland 15 years ago, when he was serving as mayor of Maple Ridge from 2005 to 2008, in response to recurring failures of the Agricultural Land Reserve system to protect land for farming. He said the steady erosion of the ALR since it was established in 1973 shows the system will not sustain farming over the long term. There is too much pressure to develop the land for competing uses such as residential housing or industrial developments.

“This fight that has been going on for over 40 years – the farmland is eventually losing,” said Robson.

“If we’re going to preserve farmland forever, we have to do something different.”

He noted that farm trusts are common in other parts of the world, including from California to the United Kingdom. With trusts, government purchases farm land from farmers, and then lease it to people who will put it back into agricultural production at a rate of two per cent of the land value per year.

It has advantages in that the land would remain in the trust, and the system would produce more working farms – which the ALR does not, he said.

Questions abound, such as what level of government would purchase the land, who would administer the trust, and who would pick the farmers.

But, Robson noted, it is an idea that was popular enough 15 years ago that some Lower Mainland municipalities indicated their willingness to invest in the idea. As the municipal government players of the day changed, the plan was lost, but Robson said it is as relevant today as it was then.

“It’s an idea. It’s a flag thrown up and a balloon thrown up, to see what the ALC will do, and what (Metro) will do,” said Robson.

He said the ALR model also has a weakness in that government presumes to use its authority to dictate what can happen on private property. If government wants to severely restrict land use, it should own the land, he said. The ever-increasing value of property in the Lower Mainland makes farming far less lucrative than developing it.

“I like the idea, I think it should be explored, and I’ve heard of this happening in other places,” said Coun. Craig Speirs.

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