Reforming the Agricultural Land Commission and our Fourth Level of Government

Three years after the Land Commission Act was passed in the provincial legislature, a new government removed critical elements in the visionary land policy. It’s time we put them back.

PREMIERS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA 1952 – 1986 (LNV Webbimage, 2018)

Dave Barrett (1973 – 1975); Bill Bennett (1976-1986); William Bennett (1952 – 1972)

The Laws of Economics know no censure. When House Prices in the GVRD—the corporate name for ‘Metro Vancouver’ per letters patent (12 June 1974)—rose by 12-times over 30 years the Laws of Economics admit but a single explanation: Land supply is over restricted in the GVRD.

The necessary corrective action that will return market valuations and reverse this untenable present condition—foisted on us by governments claiming to bring ‘sustainability’ to the markets—is to:

1 | Inject hundreds of thousands of new ‘cheap’ house units into the GVRD along the Mighty Fraser River; and

2 | Hundreds of thousands more around the shores of the Great Salish Sea. 

No other remedies will suffice. This long overdue action is required to stop the Great Vancouver Housing Crisis. However, these two measures alone cannot replace the need to curb other key factors now contributing to the spiking land prices in the region’s overheated real estate market, including:

3 | Controlling the flow of off-shore capital;

4 | Curbing speculative activity, property flipping and money laundering; and

5 | Reforming the regional governance structure.




Of course, the N-I-M-B-Y-S will be hollering hysterically that building houses in the hundreds of thousands is S-P-R-A-W-L. We identified here that there is no such thing. There really are only two choices when it comes to building urbanism: build ‘good’ urbanism, or build the ‘other’ kind. There is plenty of evidence showing how building skytrain-and-towers delivers towering profits and ‘bad’ urbanism. Of course, the real challenge lies in understanding the difference. For example, we must come to grips how building ‘good’ urbanism will reverse unsustainable housing prices.

Or we can just keep on building skytrain-and-towers—all the way to UBC and Langley—and see the price of land just keep lifting.



From: Four Proposals for Reversing the Housing Crisis

The Greater Vancouver Regional District (a.k.a. ‘Metro Vancouver’) is in the midst of a Housing Crisis following 40 years of the provincial governments and the Regional Mayor’s Councils pursuing inflationary land policy, including:

(A) Building public transit mega-projects (Skytrain);

(B) Paying for Skytrain by giving away mega-density to private developers for erecting towers, including those building next to Skytrain stations; and

(C) In a region already hemmed in by its—spectacular—geographical setting, artificially restricting 25% of the urban footprint with the exclusionary agricultural land reserve zoning.

This trifecta is the perfect storm for triggering housing price inflation. We reached the 12-times higher than the median household income threshold when the Beijing government allowed massive flows of capital to leave China in 2015 – 16:

Between 2015 and 2016, Beijing spent about $800 billion, or 20% of its foreign-exchange reserves, to stabilize the currency. Back then, banks, financial conglomerates and wealthy individuals raced to pull money out of the country, buying up luxury hotels, insurance products and any other overseas assets they could lay their hands on.

In the Lower Mainland land prices spiked into the stratosphere. And they have yet to correct or to recover. Any one of A, B and C above might have been sustainable in isolation. However, with the liberalization of international capital flows, building Hong Kong urbanism has proven a disastrous miscalculation.



In its initial form the Land Commission Act (Bill 42; passed on 17 April 1973) carried provisions that would help us deal with circumstances such as confront us today:

The new commission’s objectives also included the preservation of greenbelt land, landbank land, and parkland. Greenbelt land was “an area of open space” within or surrounding a community that was preserved for the residents’ enjoyment.


Landbank land was property suitable for urban and industrial development purchased by the commission or jointly with local governments.

[Source: History of the Agricultural Land Reserve, Legislative Library of British Columbia, August 2006, emphasis added].


The date 21 December 1972 was used as the cut-off point when projects would be deemed to have been ‘substantially commenced’ and allowed to proceed:

the Approving Officer or such other official may give a certificate to the effect he believes the development to have substantially commenced before the 21st December 1972, and a subdivision may then be approved; a building permit may then be issued; a zoning by-law may the be enacted; a land use contract may then be approve; and a Strata Title Act subdivision may then be accepted for deposit.

[By order of the Executive Council 18 January 1973]

By Order of the Executive Council (25 October 1973; received at the Commission 8 March 1974) the appeals process was amended:

Where a person having any interest in farmland is aggrieved by any action taken under authority of this Order, he may appeal to the Land Commission, who may hear the appeal and vary, amend, rescind or confirm the action.

Noting in passing the ‘gender designation’ of the ‘person having any interest in farmland,’ we submit every farm owner in the province would have appealed if they had felt they stood any chance whatsoever of preserving their land ownership rights. It is important to note that—from the outset—the land reserve met with vociferous opposition from farm owners who demonstrated against being disenfranchised of their right to sell their property in an open market. And that from the get-go the cards were stacked against the aggrieved property owner who could not beat the government that had stacked the odds against them.


*     *     *     *     *     *     

Here is where the constitutionality of the Land Commission must be challenged. No government or government agency should have the power to enrich one group of citizens (those benefiting from the huge rise in the price of land over the last 40 years) at the expense of another group (those owning lands designated as ALR). Especially when the distinction between the two groups was caused by the very government body and its enactments.

*     *     *     *     *     *     


Municipalities and Regional Districts were required to submit plans showing ALR lands by order of the Executive Council (29 November 1973) pursuant to the Land Commission Act:

Every municipality or regional district shall submit to the Provincial Land Commission a base plan showing the whole of the agricultural land reserve in the municipality or regional district…at 1 : 600,000 scale… to clearly set out the agricultural land reserve.

The regional districts—some already in existence in one form or another—were incorporated between February 1974 and May 1975 (see table below). The designation of ALR lands became one of the founding concepts for initiating this new non-elected level of government. 

By Order of the Executive Council (25 April 1974) Crown Lands were made available for the Commission to designate and administer:

Crown Land designated as an agricultural land reserve pursuant to Sections 7 and 8 of the Land Commission Act, shall be administered, managed and controlled pursuant to provision of the Land Act, disposed of only in accordance with the Land Act, provided however, that no person may use such land for any purpose other than a use compatible with the preservation of the land for farm use except as permitted by the Lan dCommission Act or the regulations under that Act or by order of the Provincial Land Commission upon such terms and conditions as the Commission may impose.




The desirability and the constitutionality of having non-elected governments directly affecting outcomes in the private wealth of its citizens and in the open markets must be challenged.





In order to assist the Land Commission identify agricultural lands, landbank lands, greenbelt lands and park lands, 26 regional districts were incorporated by Order-in-Council between and 13 February 1974 and 17 May 1975. A 27th regional district, the Regional District of Mount Waddington, was added on 21 December 1976.






Working with the Land Commission the GVRD (incorporated in 1974) located most of the land reserves in the outlying municipalities—zones 4, 5 & 6 in the map above. These were the very places where one would expect future growth to locate. The question arises as to the wisdom of prohibiting ALL development from taking place in the very place where it was looking to go. Wouldn’t it make more sense to shape it rather than ban it outright? The question also arises whether—as urban development moved into the valley—these ‘rural’ municipalities should be required to devolve their powers to new and smaller local governments. Places like Port Moody and Coquitlam were growing by means of boundary expansion to the north. However, the opportunity presented to have Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, District of Langley, Delta and perhaps even Surrey break out sections turning them into new municipalities. Something of that ilk took place in White Rock in the late 1950s when on a sleepy Friday at the Legislature a back bencher’s bill created a new municipality out of territories then held in the District of Surrey. 

The obvious should also be noted. Zones 0 & 1 barely contain any farms at all save for a large tract in eastern Richmond. Like much of the rest of the Lower Mainland these core areas are built on the best quality farming soil. This is typically the case with most great urban areas the world over, including capitals like Paris and Roma.

Thus, the issue looms large about the validity of simply designating any and all agricultural land as an ‘exclusionary agricultural land reserve’ in isolation of all other considerations.



Two years after the Social Credit party was returned to power, the Land Commission Act was ‘consolidated for convenience’ as the Agricultural Land Commission Act (20 January 1978). These were the first ‘major amendments’ of the Land Commission Act narrowing its mandate to focus exclusively on agriculture. In its new form the ALC enforced an outright ban on every other use except farming. Not surprisingly among the powers stripped off the Land Commission we find primary elements of ‘good’ urbanism:

• The preservation of greenbelt land;

Purchacing landbank land for urban and industrial uses, and

• Preserving land for parkland.

The Land Commission had always been characterized as an arbitrary land grab by government. However, what had been in 1973-75 a dubious start at establishing governance at a regional scale was now distorted into an artificial land ban imposed in isolation of any other considerations but the rating of soil for agriculture. For example, no economic analysis was attempted. Neither the provincial government, nor the new regional governments, projected future growth or attempted to determine adequate how much land was needed held in reserve to accommodate coming population increases. This is merely the nuts and bolts of planning. Yet, actions in governance that would have momentous consequences a generation later were taken quickly, on the cheap, haphazardly, without due analysis, or investigation.

Some planning.





SOURCE: GVRD Farming in Metro Vancouver (2014)


Statistics published by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (2014) show the amount of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in use: 47% farmed and 53% not farmed. The statistics also break down the crops that are being produced on the 47% of the land under cultivation:

• feed grass (49%)

• berries (29%)

• table vegetables (14%)

• all other crops including tree nurseries (8%)

The Laws of Economics return the fact that we have constricted the land supply for housing in the region—triggering house prices to rise 12-times above the median household income—for the purpose of growing grass and berries.

Furthermore—by the GVRDs own accounting—over half of the ALR is not being used for farming at all. Many of the lands counted as ‘farms’ today are simply ‘hobby farms’ gaming the system with flagrant violations of ALR restrictions on housing. The total ALR area cultivated excluding grassland is 24%.




SOURCE: GVRD Farming in Metro Vancouver (2014)


Using the data we can isolate these facts about farms in the GVRD:

• GVRD farms account for 0.3% of the entire provincial ALR.

• GVRD farms account of 47% of the GVRD ALR reserve.

• GVRD farms produce 27% of the BC farm output.

• On average GVRD farms are 10-times smaller than BC farms.

Clearly, something is out of kilter. 12% of the footprint of the GVRD produces 27% of the farm output of British Columbia. Yet GVRD farms account for just 0.3% of farms in BC. What’s happening in the other 99.7% of agricultural land in the province?



Our analysis returns a disturbing but not too surprising result: ethical and governance choices are being clouded by ideologically charged concepts like ‘food security’ and ‘local food production.’ Concepts that bear a tenuous connection to reality. Neither the GVRD or the province are not about to become agriculturally self-sufficient any time soon. For example, it is difficult to imaging crowing coffee. And neither is any other region of North America for that matter.


We can grow grass for livestock in Golden, B.C. What presents the greater threat to our society? Using 8.6% of the urban footprint in the GVRD to cultivate feed grass or importing the feed for livestock from Golden? Not surprisingly the twisted logic of the ALR is often packaged under the guise of ‘environmental sustainability’ by individuals and corporations lacking technical expertise, yet holding a financial stake in the outcomes: 

The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which recognizes agriculture as a priority use in dedicated zones, supports local food production in British Columbia. Compared with imported produce picked before ripeness and shipped long distances to Metro Vancouver, horticultural products from the ALR are shipped short distances when ripe. As a result, efficiently distributed local production reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and reduces the cost of transportation and the ‘real cost’ of carbon to the environment.

“the economy of local food in vancouver,” Vancouver Economic Development Commission | British Columbia, Canada [p. 3, emphasis mine


We have detailed here how GHGs originating in transportation will be reduced to ZERO as we adopt electric vehicle technology and switch rail and shipping to renewable fuels. Only airlines are projected to continue using petroleum based fuels. The Livable Region Strategic Plan (1996) on the other hand identified farming as contributing as much GHGs as industry (5%). 







Arguing for ‘food safety’ and ‘local food production’ as a means to reduce GHGs is no longer a tenable position. We estimate that the first stage of GHG reduction will eliminate 67% of all atmospheric pollution before 2030. The second stage will shrink it to 6%. It is true that we will likely continue to lead the world in clean energy adoption in BC. Yet it is just as true the North America and Europe lead the world in generating GHGs. I don’t see China as a problem as long as the ‘Chinese Miracle’ is coupled to the train being pulled by the western economies.

Spiking the cost of houses beyond the reach of the working and middle classes, on the other hand, THAT is a serious matter.

Over 70% of people polled consistently state that they would prefer to be able to afford to buy a house on a lot. Are our governments listening? Or do they understand their mandate as growing blue berries and grass while permitting the runaway construction of luxury condos for the global market (read: Asia)? Consider that the price at the supermarket for the local product and product from California and Mexico is about on par. The price of housing… that paints an entirely different picture.

The analysis returns the following results:

• The ALR is putting upward pressure on family housing prices to the point that the middle and working classes can no longer afford living in a house they own—a.k.a. The Canadian Dream.

• More than half of the GVRD ALR is not even farmed.

• In most cases this is due to the fact that the land is non-farmable.

• Farming in the GVRD is really not very productive. Fully half the products—grassland—can be grown in more remote, less urbanized regions.

• Taking into account that 27% of the agricultural value created in British Columbia originates in the GVRD one has to surmise that farming outside the Lower Mainland is less productive by orders of magnitude difference.

• The Land Commission has never carried out a detailed inventory of reserve lands. Neither in the Lower Mainland nor anywhere else in the province. The reserves were created in the 1970s before we had GIS technology, and no effort was ever made to determine precisely what land resources are represented.

• The constitutional legitimacy must be challenged of using government policy to lower the value of the property for one group, while increasing the value of the property for a second and separate group. Both groups being artificially created by the same government policy.

• The legitimacy of a non-elected level of government that rules over our dully elected municipal councils must be reformed. Regional government lords it over local (elected) councils requiring submission of ‘context statements’ and ‘official community plans’ in strict adherence to regional policy.

• The non-elected regional government must be made to answer to the people in regular elections held every two to four years.



The original Land Commission Act—introduced in 1973—did not conceive of a ban on development in isolation of all other factors including landbanks, green belts and parks .

In the GVRD, for example, fully 25% of the footprint is encompassed by the agricultural land ban. The original legislation recognized the importance of retaining industrial and urban sites adjacent to farmland for obvious reasons. Homes near farms will benefit from consuming farm products straight from the farmers. And farmers will benefit from industrial plants and co-ops locating nearby to process the products from their fields.

Also, much treasure and blood has been invested in transportation and service infrastructure that blankets the urban regions. Arbitrarily denying access and use of these community assets carries obvious detrimental consequences.

Striking the balance between urban and agricultural footprint is a complex issue in any culture. Yet, in the GVRD—and the rest of British Columbia—the case was opened and shut in just one year (1974) using limited information, rudimentary tools (no computers, GIS or satellite imaging), and in isolation of the concrete and measurable facts characteristic of ‘good’ urbanism.

More than forty-four years later the results are about what one could have been expected.

• The policies of what today must be recognized as an illegitimate level of government have been used

• ‘strategically’ to foist the towers-and-skytrain (‘bad’) urbanism upon us.

• Surveys regularly return numbers in the 70-percentile of folks desiring to live in a house on a lot, yet being not being able to afford it.

Our GVRD government has made it so that barely 35% can afford to live on a house on a lot.

And there is not telling what the conditions fronting those houses may be. In Vancouver single family residential fronts most arterial streets with traffic counts that fare exceed acceptable levels for ‘livability’.

Yet, we live under the Livable Region Strategic Plan and its later iterations. Unwittingly, the regional plans keep publishing statistics about how many families are now crammed in apartment buildings and how many millions of square feet are being pre-sold in luxury towers built in ‘strategic’ locations to overseas buyers.

We live in a nation and a province characterized by the vast expanses of untrammelled nature.

Yet we find ourselves in a housing crisis that first reared its head when housing prices more than doubled between 1971 and 1974.

As a second act followed—from 1986 to the present prices went up 12-times. All of the increase accrues to the value of land.

Furthermore, putting a stop to growth was not part of the original mandate for the Land Commission. Neither was restricting the supply of tracts of land for urbanization. However, the provisions for acquiring land and passing it on to (new) municipalities to oversee and administer were removed at the end of 1977. Forty years later we find ourselves in the midst of a (policy driven) Housing Crisis without the right tools to make the necessary corrections.

Thus, when the Land Commission Act was ‘consolidated for convenience’ as the Agricultural Land Commission Act in January 1978 it eradicated what in hindsight becomes an essential part of the legislation. Pouring over original documents and articles written by key players a question emerges about the level of understanding at the time around issues of ‘good’ urbanism. Of equal concern, an ideology emerges from these materials running rampant to ‘save the planet’ by conserving all agricultural land into one restrictive zoning designation. Then there is the looming presence of a vacuum occupying the place where an understanding that urbanism per se need not be a ‘bad’ thing. This assumption is in and of itself pointing in the same direction of incriminating the planning and political circles of the day as jumping to the conclusion that all construction is necessarily ‘bad’. 

The point that we make here is that the land use policy adopted was without question ‘bad,’ poorly thought out and rashly implemented. For example, it mattered little that the land designations consumed transportation corridors and important waterfront sites. The legislators and professional planners could admit of only one test in isolation of all the others: if it was farmable, it was out of limits to development. Period.

Thus, an artificial shortage of land was foisted upon the region wrapped up in an equally dangerous and anachronistic planning ideology. Planners and politicians pushed the agenda of building town centres, building hi-ries and ‘discouraging people from using their cars’. Today, it is difficult to imagine a more idiotic trifecta of planning prescriptions.

Yet, it was all forced down onto the elected local governments by the new, non-elected ‘regional’ government. It was done without an economic analysis warning of the dangers of land prices lifting as densities pushed up. It was done without projections on population growth or quantification of the space necessary to accommodate it. It was all made as if urbanism was a ‘natural force’ capable of finding its own point of stasis. A fool with a calculator could have generated more accurate predictions—even coming up with the unavoidable result: the triggering of the Great Vancovuer Housing Crisis. The rest of it—the global forces, the off-shore capital flows, the gambling and money laundering, and the distortions created by an over-heated property market, flipping, speculative buying—all of it exerted even more upward pressure on already boiling over land valuations.

Yet, the planners heeded no warnings. 

Looked at it from the rubric of ‘good’ urbanism the ALR becomes a paradigmatic example of ‘bad’ urbanism. It presents a paradigm of practices that must be avoided and ideologies that must be put aside. 

Three issues demand closer scrutiny:

• Creating a non-elected level of government with the powers to significantly alter the quality of life of citizens and affect the markets by (mis)shaping the urbanism of Canadian society.

• Acting in such a way as to intentionally or otherwise benefit one group of citizens (owners of non-ALR lands) at the expense of another group (owners of ALR-designated lands).

• Returning to a properly constituted Land Commission the duties to open new lands for development, specifically opening new lands for houses. And using farm land and other reserves as open space, green-belt and park land to materially enhance the overall quality of our urbanism.

Perhaps it is time we consider reversing back to the original Land Commission Act bringing back a Land Commission that builds new towns complete with new governments. Today, the exclusionary ALR policy is artificially restricting land supply and putting upward pressure on land values now soaring in the stratosphere.

However, any corrective action must include—as a first priority—making the regional governments answer to the people by becoming an elected fourth level of government. The election cycle might then be: municipal, federal, provincial and regional. One election following another in a four-year cycle. 



The longest-inhabited urban footprint in the western world is the site of Ancient Roma in Italy. The historic core of the classical capital lies nestled in a bend of the Tiber River famously surrounded by seven hills. The valley floor, at the center of which we find the ruins of the Roman Forum, must be among the most fertile lands in the Mediterranean. Yet, farming in the ancient capital was relegated to the latifundia—large landed estates in the outskirts of the urban core. The distances were calculated to allow fresh produce to be carried back into the city to feed a population that reached 1 million two thousand years ago.

Ubiquitous to anyone visiting Roma are 11 Egyptian obelisks—large monoliths of stone—scattered around the city. Less clear is how these stone giants got there. All were imported from the Nile region. Making this Quixotic enterprise practical was the fact that all the grain used for making bread in Roman capital was imported from Egypt. The obelisks are witness to the scale of the enormous quantity of agricultural goods arriving in the ancient capital. Given the tonnage of agricultural product sailing across the Mediterranean, shipping a huge stone monolith amounted to only a bit more cargo. Over the years transporting eleven of them was accomplished matter-of-factly.  A further indication of the scale of agricultural importation in what may be considered the greatest city in western culture is the institution in first century CE of the practice of issuing ‘free bread’ to every Roman citizen. Assuming the citizen took care of his household and retinue, that meant free bread—daily—for a million souls. Give us this day our daily bread…

There has always been good reasons to maintain a workable balance between the lands reserved for cultivation of food and for urbanism. However, when the sole criteria for excluding land is that ‘land is farmable’—in isolation of everything else—then, the sense of balance is missing. As was the case in ancient Roma, practical considerations must focus on the overall wellbeing of the population—not just growing feed grass & berries. In urbanism must remain ever vigilant that the scales do not tip too far in one direction or another. The Housing Crisis engulfing our region, where the middle and working classes can no longer afford to buy into the Canadian Dream because prices are 12-times over median household incomes, is a red burning flare pointing to the balance between farm land and urban land being out of kilter in the GVRD. Corrective action must be taken. The recent federal, provincial and local elections where incumbents were ousted point to the same material fact. Housing prices must be brought back to par with median household incomes. One last issue to underscore: regional governments must be made accountable to the people in a regular four-year election cycle.


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