Monday, September 23, 2013

Agricultural Land Commission - Largest land expropriation in Canadian history

ALR - Largest land expropriation in Canadian history

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The incursion by government in to the domain of private property, and its use and administration challenges one who holds private property rights dear. In Canada, and specifically in British Columbia where in 1972 the then NDP government in effect expropriated agricultural land in British Columbia for “preservation” as a perceived public good. Perhaps the best example of the lack of consideration in Canada for private property rights is their absence in the Charter of Rights and freedoms, Canadian’s are essentially absent any constitutional protection of private property – we do have a large breath of common law to support property rights; but our ownership or management choice of property can be legislated away, as was demonstrated by the advent of the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). Had property rights been in place, as a right held by Canadians, the government would have had to properly compensate landowners for the reduction in opportunity that accrued to the owners as a result of the ALC’s creation. Farmers were never properly compensated, the legislation has never served to stave off development of choice farmland, agricultural land holds a massive “speculative development premium”, agricultural land trades at values that far exceed economically viable operations and the other goals of the legislation have only partly been satisfied.

The ALC’s actions, having failed to some degree to effect an overall benefit to agriculture, still frustrates the supply of land of only “marginal” value as farm land, in retarding the supply of said lands, the ACL has put significant upward pressure on land development for housing, this situation is acute in the lower mainland. This reality is exacerbated by the fact the most of BC is crownland and the government seems intent on hording it, rather than releasing in a responsible way to effect a more livable circumstance for the lower and middle income strata.

There are circumstances where the government is warranted in offering direction for private land use, but parameters must be set, people need to be reimbursed. Perhaps key agricultural land is such a case. Please read below, a letter sent in 2006 to the Agriculture Minister. Most of my critique offered then is still valid – action is needed.      

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Neil E. Thomson

September 22, 2006

Minister of Agriculture and Lands
PO Box 9043
Stn Prov. Govt.
Victoria BC
V8W 9E2

Dear Sir,

RE: The Agricultural Land Commission Reform

This letter is in response to your and other’s discourse on the Bill Good show and the Forever Farmland submission paper authored by Charles Campbell for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Property Rights

Recent discourse around this issue is lacking advocacy for land owner’s interests. On the Bill Good show you stated that, upon a properties exclusion from ALR the owners become “instant millionaires.” The presumption being that the owner in enjoying a windfall through a zoning change being bestowed on them by the government. The fact is that farmland owners are being impaired from exercising their right to manage personal property in the most profitable way. Your tone seemed to support the tone of the David Suzuki Foundation’s submission paper that opportunity is being extended to land owners upon exclusion from the ALR, when in fact opportunity is being regained, or that ownership is being allowed to do what property rights should allow them to do. 

The right to manage property by ownership in response to market opportunity is the keystone of a market based society. Proper deference to this paradigm was withheld when this legislation initially was imposed on the farmland owners of British Columbia, and has continued to be ignored over the ALR’s thirty plus year history.

One needs to recognize that market influences often impose Faustian actions that run contrary to the greater good, and perhaps agricultural land use and development is such a case. While the need to preserve farmland is certainly a value I share with many, the actual need to preserve farm land is very abstract and subjective. It is difficult to provide supported argument for preservation of farmland outside what may have “naturally” occurred in response to market forces.

In a case such as the ALR, especially where a compelling state interest is very difficult to demonstrate, property rights should be respected by reimbursing ownership for opportunities forgone. When the government put this legislation into place in 1972 they erased large portions of people’s net worth with what amounted to an act of expropriation.  

Had the government given deference to property rights when this legislation was put in place, many of the negative effects of the ALR would have been reduced. The proper treatment of farmland owners of the day would have given the government the latitude to strengthen lands retention by the ALC and may have greatly reduced the speculative values on farmland today.

ALR and Valuation of Farmland

The present application of the ALR legislation has set up a dynamic where speculation is still viable, so land prices escalate in response to their potential value for development, while at the same time the ALR is restricting supply of land for development. The past application of the ALR legislation may have driven farmland prices higher than if the ALR legislation was absent.

The only way to assure that Farmland prices reflect farming’s ability to be viable is to have lands inclusion in the ALR permanent and the contemplation of development non existent. As a society we ascribe values to land for any number of reasons, we protect parks etc.. We manage parks in the absence of consideration of the removal of Park status and we can do the same for agricultural land.

Permanent Inclusion in the ALR

Permanent inclusion in the ALR requires recognition that government is expropriating opportunity from farmland owners and retribution needs to be made to present ownership for opportunities forgone. The commitment to permanence with proper deference to property rights, would force government to be thorough in their assessment of land type and quantity to be included in the ALR.

Clearly Defined Purpose, Criteria for Inclusion and Inventory

There needs to be a clearly defined purpose for inclusion and a set of criteria for inclusion that supports that purpose. Preserving farmland is a very broad or vague mandate and a confused execution has emerged as a result of the existing vagueness. What is the farmland being preserved for? How much preserved farmland is enough? What quality requires preservation? What are the complete set of values we are seeking to protect?

Inclusion in the ALR should be criteria driven. The establishment of clear criteria for inclusion provides for a less politically charged environment and provides the “market” with a stable setting for planning and development.

Presently there is a trading process which allows agricultural land outside the ALR to be “traded “ to allow the development of land inside the ALR. This fact in of itself illustrates that there is more work to be done on inventory or presumably these “non ALR agricultural lands” would have been included in the ALR at the inception of the ALC. A complete inventory of presently available agricultural land needs to be developed.

The interests underpinning the societal desire to preserve farmland are diverse. A process needs to be initiated that draws out the values that exist in the public body around farmland and informs them of the cost of preserving farmland. It is my opinion that a broad array of values are at play exceeding just securing food production, to values including aesthetics of the countryside and preservation of the family farm. The existing legislation and its enactment seem to be falling short on responding to the diversity of values that exist.

Regressive Assessment of ALR Legislation

The legislation needs to be considered in the context of where would we be today in the absence of the ALR? What do other jurisdictions look like without a ALR? This assessment would provide valuable information for the future management of the ALR and its management regime.

Facilitation of Diverse Land Use
The government has taken steps in the past to contribute to the viability of agriculture by offering opportunities for diversifying farm operations. The woodlot program is a case in point. The farming community should have access to tourism opportunities enhanced. Complementary Tourism enterprises come with a small environment and land use footprint, and offer opportunity for higher margins than can be garnered from most agricultural enterprises.

The case of Golf courses has been raised by many as a “non agricultural” activity and inappropriate for ALR Lands. This is a case in point, where the legislation needs to offer direction. A Golf course is an activity that allows for economically viable non-destructive use of the land, until such time as a future agricultural venture offers a better opportunity. That is to say the land is “readily” reclaimable or “held in reserve” for agriculture. A golf course is every bit as agricultural as a turf farm or a Christmas tree farm.

Forever Farmland – David Suzuki foundation - Recommendations

The recommendations submitted to you are generally acceptable. The recommendations do need to be sensitised to property rights. In the ambit of land use management, the various planning forums need to find interoperability. Criteria and objectives can be derived from public consultation through the full management spectrum, the application of criteria and objectives should be held to the local forums.  


I am compelled to support measures that protect farmland. The protection of farmland satisfies two primary concerns for me; firstly the assurance of the ability to be regionally self-sufficient in traditional food production, and secondly the desire to preserve the beauty of British Columbia’s countryside.

Thank you for giving consideration to the contents of this letter in your deliberations.


Neil E. Thomson

CC:      Claude Richmond, Minister of Employment and Income Assistance
            Kevin Krueger, MLA Kamloops – North Thompson 
            Ann Rowan, Director of Sustainability – David Suzuki Foundation
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