11/07/2013 02:51 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST

B.C. NDP Decry 'Attack On The Independence' Of Land Reserve

VANCOUVER - A leaked cabinet document that proposes significant changes to British Columbia's Agricultural Land Reserve — millions of hectares of cherished farmland that have been largely protected from development for decades — prompted swift denials Thursday from the provincial government and left proponents of the program with uneasy questions about its future.

The Globe and Mail published a story based on cabinet documents that reportedly outline a proposal from Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm to "modernize" the Agricultural Land Commission, the Crown agency that manages the land reserve.

Among other things, the proposal would see the Agricultural Land Commission cease to be an independent agency, instead coming under the control of the Agriculture Ministry, while handing "primary authority" to authorize industrial activity on agricultural land to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, the newspaper reported.

The documents were prepared as part of a so-called "core review" of government operations, launched earlier this year in a bid to trim the provincial budget, and the cabinet minister in charge of that review responded Thursday by ruling out many of the most controversial aspects of the leaked proposal.

Bill Bennett, who is also the minister of energy and mines, said the Globe and Mail story was based on an "older document" that has since been rejected. He said the government has ruled out shifting the commission's duties to the agriculture minister or handing over more decision-making authority to the oil and gas regulator.

"We certainly have no plans to bring the commission inside government or tamper with the independence of the commission, and we have no plans to undermine the central principle of the reserve, which is the protection of good quality farmland," Bennett said in an interview.

Bennett noted the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission has had the power to approve certain applications on land within the Agricultural Land Reserve for nearly a decade through a document known as a "delegation agreement," which was last updated earlier this year.

"If there were changes made (to the agreement), they would be quite minor; we're not looking at anything close to what the reporter described in his article."

Bennett downplayed the significance of Pimm's proposal, suggesting it was little more than one of many ideas he and his Liberal government colleagues have considered as part of the core review process.

However, Bennett's comments did little to assure supporters of the land reserve, which was created in the mid-1970s by the NDP government of the day amid concerns that the province's farmland was rapidly disappearing.

The reserve is made up of 4.7 million hectares of land throughout the province on which agriculture is given top priority. Strict controls are placed on non-agricultural uses and under what circumstances land can be taken out of the reserve.

The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of the most fiercely defended institutions in the province, with advocates routinely raising concerns that private businesses — whether through property development or oil and gas projects — have been able to whittle away at protected farmland.

Those fears have persisted despite the provincial government's repeated insistence it has no plans to gut the reserve. Earlier this year, the government added $4 million to the Agricultural Land Commission's budget over the next three years.

Harold Steves, who as an NDP member of the legislature in the 1970s is credited as one of the land reserve's co-founders, said he's convinced the Liberal government is searching for ways to weaken the reserve and the commission that protects it.

"I'm not confident at all," said Steves, who is now a city councillor in Richmond, south of Vancouver.

"Whether they've ruled these two particular proposals out, I would bet there's another one some place, and we'll just see them coming one after another."

Steves warned any attempt to tamper with the land reserve would be fraught with political danger.

"If they called an election on this issue, they wouldn't get a seat," he said.

The Opposition New Democrats were quick to seize on the leaked cabinet documents, holding them up as proof the Liberals are bent on destroying the land reserve in favour of big business.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said the Agricultural Land Commission has done a good job protecting the land reserve, and he accused the Liberals of "attacking the independence" of the agency.

"It's extraordinary — it's really a betrayal of what the Liberals have said," Dix said in an interview.

"In secret, they're talking about undermining it. It doesn't make sense, it's not needed, it's not clear what problem they're trying to solve, and it would be a victory of private interests over the public interest."

Industry groups such as the B.C. Cattlemen's Association and the B.C. Agriculture Council said they were concerned about the leaked cabinet proposal, but they acknowledged they still need to see more details about what changes, if any, the government is actually considering before coming to any conclusions.

They also expressed frustration their members haven't been consulted about the future of the commission.

Rhonda Driediger, the chair of the agriculture council, said the government needs to come up with a detailed vision for the province's agriculture industry before making any substantial changes to how the land reserve is managed.

"The Liberals have not really given us a long-term plan for agriculture," said Driediger.

"If we had a long-term agriculture strategy, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

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