Greenhouses and fish farms

The province undermines local control
September 1, 2003

What do greenhouses in Delta and fish farms on the coast have in common? In both cases, the provincial government is willing to trample on the interests of local government and local citizens in order to impose its own will.

You may have heard about the escalating brouhaha between the province and the municipality of Delta over greenhouses -- which will feature prominently in discussions at this week's Union of BC Municipalities convention. Delta has been trying to pass a bylaw that limits the size of greenhouses on agricultural land. The municipality is worried about productive farmland being lost under ever-expanding greenhouses. A new bylaw, submitted to the province in January, has local support.

But the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries rejected it. How? By using the Farm Practices Protection Act, otherwise known as the right-to-farm act. The act, passed by the previous government, requires municipalities to get approval from the province whenever they want to pass a bylaw dealing with agriculture.

The original intent of the act was valid: to protect farmland from inappropriate development like golf courses; and to protect farmers from people moving into neighbouring subdivisions and making unreasonable demands about how agriculture should sound and smell.

Nevertheless, for Delta, a city known for its vast, rich farmland, regulating agriculture is a pretty big part of its mandate. So you can understand the frustration of the mayor and council over this seven-year fight with the province to protect farmland.

Lately, Delta has been getting some sympathy. The province wants to similarly handcuff coastal communities such as Salt Spring Island and Comox, this time over fish farms.

Bill 48, introduced in the spring and scheduled to be passed in the fall, will allow the provincial Cabinet to pass an Order-in-Council that can designate any Crown land -- including coastal waters -- as a "farming area." That farming area would become subject to the right-to-farm act, and voila, municipal governments and regional districts no longer have any say. No debate in the legislature. No need to consult local elected officials.

Not surprisingly, Bill 48 has attracted the attention of local governments all along the coast. Four resolutions opposing Bill 48 will be voted on at the Union of BC Municipalities convention going on this week. Delta, the Powell River Regional District and the Island Trust have all asked that Bill 48 be scrapped.

The Islands Trust (elected officials that represent residents of the southern Gulf Islands) is concerned about a proposed Sablefish nursery on Salt Spring Island. The trustees oppose the development, since it will be in a sensitive ecosystem and disturb a First Nations gravesite. But the trustees have no ability to stop it. The right-to-farm act allows the province to trample on local democracy.

So much for the Community Charter, intended to give municipalities "more local autonomy." According to the government, "the Community Charter will be the most empowering local government statute." So long as its not decision-making power about agriculture or aquaculture, I guess.

The right-to-farm act also makes a mockery of the Salmon Aquaculture Review. The government lifted the moratorium on new fish farm licenses based on the Review's determination that the environmental risks were acceptable. Completely forgotten or ignored are the recommendations that were supposed to accompany the lifting of the moratorium.

One recommendation is that local advisory committees should be set up to get input from local government and residents about where fish farms are appropriate. And yet, advisory committees have not been established anywhere. Why would they, if the province will override them anyway?

The Islands Trust, with the support of local residents, does not want aquaculture development -- neither a sablefish hatchery on Salt Spring Island nor a shellfish farm on Denman. Aquaculture simply does not fit in with their vision for their community. However, with Bill 48, residents and elected local governments will become even more powerless to make that decision.

If the province is truly interested in empowering local governments, it should scrap Bill 48. It should revamp the right-to-farm act so that local governments have more power over land use decisions, not less. Adopting a more inclusive, conciliatory approach with municipalities and regional districts will go a long way to convincing them the province is on their side.

Dale Marshall is Resource Policy Analyst for the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.