11/11/2013 03:16 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:56 EST

B.C. Agricultural Land Commission Admonished Minister For Application Actions


VANCOUVER - Before presenting his cabinet colleagues with a proposal to overhaul British Columbia's agricultural land reserve, Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm was admonished by the arm's length commission for his aggressive lobbying to remove a parcel of land from the reserve.

In a written decision issued in August, the Agricultural Land Commission said Pimm's representation on behalf of a rodeo and RV campsite development in Fort St. John were "not appropriate."

"They could create the impression for both the commission and the public that these officials were attempting to politically influence the commission," said the letter to the proponent, Terry McLeod, which was posted on the agency's website.

The commission received the application in October 2012 for a rodeo facility with indoor arenas, a campsite, chuck wagon track, restaurant and offices. Last March, the commission refused the application, saying there was no evidence that the agricultural land was the only area where the project could be developed.

The proponent asked them to reconsider, and on May 27 — two weeks after being re-elected as the area MLA, and about two weeks before becoming agriculture minister — Pimm showed up unannounced as commission members toured the site, "indicating his strong support for the application," the letter said.

A few days later, the commission received a letter from Pimm dated May 17 — three days after the provincial election.

"This letter is to inform you of my concern of your decision to refuse the application," Pimm wrote, outlining the benefits of the project.

"I strongly request that you reconsider your decision to refuse this opportunity to offer, locally, a source of recreation to our agricultural community."

On June 6, Pimm's constituency assistant sent an email to the commission "in support of" the application, and urged a quick decision. Another inquiry came in to the commission on July 25, this time from Pimm's ministerial assistant who was to be helping the minister with his cabinet duties.

The day after that inquiry arrived, the executive director of the commission sent the assistant an email stating that it would be inappropriate to release information to the minister's office.

"The ALR exists precisely because British Columbia has long recognized that if agricultural land were to succumb every time anyone proposed a development on particular land that proponents and politicians viewed on an ad hoc basis as being more economically favourable than the current use of that land, expedient and even short-sighted decisions would often follow, to the long-term detriment of the province's agricultural land base," the commission wrote in the August decision.

The agency does not base decisions on "the politically expedient, the crisis of the day or short-term profit," it said.

Pimm said Monday he was advocating as the area MLA for an opportunity that would offer many benefits to the community.

"After I was appointed Minister of Agriculture on June 10, 2013, my ministerial office contacted the ALC to enquire about the timeline for a decision — just as we have done, and would do, for all MLAs," the minister said in a statement.

"The ALC makes independent decisions about land use in British Columbia, and I fully respect their decisions."

But the commission said members of the legislature should take their concerns to cabinet "in order to convince them that the matter should be taken out of the commission's hands."

Cabinet documents leaked to the Globe and Mail newspaper suggest Pimm went a step further. The agriculture minister proposed sweeping changes to the Agricultural Land Commission, the Crown agency that manages 4.7 million hectares of land in B.C.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett has said Pimm's proposal was an old document that was rejected, but that the Liberal government is considering minor changes.

The Opposition New Democrats said Pimm was attempting to interfere in a commission decision, and then came up with a "secret plan" to dismantle the ALR.

"It's supposed to be Minister Pimm's job to stand up for agriculture ...," Nicolas Simons, the NDP agriculture critic, said in a statement.

But McLeod, who bought the land on the outskirts of Fort St. John for the rodeo grounds, said the commission process was an exercise in frustration.

A former oil and gas entrepreneur born and raised in the northern city, he said the project had the support of the city council and the regional district.

There is another rodeo grounds, as the commission decision pointed out, but McLeod said the rapidly expanding northern oil and gas hub has long outgrown the existing facilities.

McLeod said he asked the local MLA to get involved after the initial refusal from the commission, which left him "flabbergasted."

McLeod said the only people against the proposal were those on the commission.

"It's like the ALC can dictate whether or not anybody can make it in business or make any progress to bring better opportunities to our cities or towns."

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