QandA with Thomas Loo – Former ALC Enforcement Officer

I caught up with Thomas Loo, a former enforcement officer for the Agricultural Land Commission. I asked him five questions about the government’s leaked documents that may indicate the ALC could be forced to withdraw many of its powers and/or come under the tutelage of the Ministry of Agriculture. His answers in many instances are speculative as the core review has not been officially released.

1. If the Agricultural Land Commission were to hand powers over to municipalities on land-use decisions for the Agricultural Land Reserve, what do you think would be the consequences? How do you think a municipal enforcement strategy would pan out?

Loo: The current version of the ALC Act allows for something called a delegation agreement.  Basically it’s a contractual type agreement where the commission and a city council mutually agree to take on the powers of the commission.  In other words the local council would pass the final decision on whether or not to allow a “non-farm use.”  Currently, the local government can refuse the application, or forward it to the ALC for further consideration.  I always felt the local council had “first right of refusal ” anyways.  By refusing to forward the application to the ALC, it stops.  But in reality, sometimes councils would forward the application (with or without supporting comments) to the commission for a decision. I figure that was because they didn’t feel either it was their area of expertise of they just didn’t want to say ‘no.’  After all, local government has a different mandate than that of the ALC.  Under the delegation agreement, the local government would have some guidelines to work under to ensure the decisions were at least following the mandate of the ALC.

Municipal enforcement could in theory be better.  After all, there is something like 150 or so local governments and regional districts with ALR land.  If each of those had at least one bylaw enforcement officer, well, now we’re talking 155 enforcement staff.  In Richmond where I used to live, I believe there are five ‘land use’ type bylaw officers.  Those are the ones that typically deal with ‘land use infractions’ and unsightly properties.  So depending on how the individual local governments set up their enforcement for agricultural zones, at a minimum, it may be a better response

When I worked with  theALC, I relied heavily on local government response. Usually, they could respond faster as they were closer to the issue.  I also travelled around the province and with support from ALC management we designated some forestry officers as ALC officials, so they could be the commission’s ‘first response as well.

Under the delegation agreement, The ALC has a role of being the agency with some oversight.  In other words, rather than making the decisions, they can audit the decisions made by the local government.  The only thing I’m not sure of is what happens when the local government decisions are not consistent with the mandate of the ALC.  Do they get stripped of their authority? That you might have to ask the ALC

The other benefit is that many local governments also have other tools. That may also be a small deterent to those who ‘snub’ the law.  Local government also has access to the Supreme Court for an application for injunctions, just like the commission

2. Even if the ALC remains status quo, shouldn’t municipalities be building their own protective laws/measures in addition to the ALC (Richmond’s mayor says they’re developing a farm fill policy)? Or is this a slippery slope?

Loo: Many municipalities already have bylaws that mirror the ALC Act. Technically speaking, any bylaw that is inconsistent with the ALC Act & Regulations may not have any force & effect.  I sat in with the Richmond agricultural advisory council on the initial stages of their farm fill policy.  I didn’t like the direction they were going and hope they keep working with the ALC staff, because from what I remember it seemed to be doomed for failure. …In general, filling is considered a ‘non-farm use.’ The commission doesn’t generally support it.  There is no ‘farm fill’ projects.  There are construction projects where if a farm access road was needed or fill required for flood proofing (provided a valid building permit has been issued), are permitted by the regulations.  I always made myself available to any local government staff if they received a fill permit application and needed some comments for interpretation regarding the ALC Act.  If I had to really stretch the regulations, then by default we would require a formal application for non-farm use

It could be a slippery slope.  Local governments mostly get a royalty on the fill, somewhere around $0.50 cents per cubic metre.  The justification is that the trucks do damage to the roads. If the City of Richmond implemented their bylaw and it required all those requiring fill to get a permit (ALR or not), then they could fund the ALR enforcement much easier.  Not to mention, in some municipalities they also require a soil removal permit.  When I was in Delta as their soil officer, if a client got a permit to remove the preload, as part of the permit, they were required to let me know where it went.  So if it went to another site in Delta without a permit, they could be cited for non-compliance.  But if it left the municipality, I could also call my counterparts in the new one to at least let them know. It was like an ad hoc information network

3. As a former enforcement officer, did you find you could handle all the cases in front of you? There’s just one person doing it all now, correct?

In all honesty, it was difficult. Given the huge area, the large volume of complaints, it was easy to get overwhelmed especially if you had local governments with soil bylaws and local staff dedicated to finding the dumpsites.  First and foremost, the rule is to get voluntary compliance.  So if the locals found a site, they could issue a Stop Work Order (SWO).  Typically, my partner and I would get a copy of the SWO or a letter advising that they found someone dumping without a permit in the ALR.  Depending on what it was, sometimes the client was given the opportunity to apply for a permit after the fact.   When they applied, we would review the application from local government and provided comments, determined if it was consistent with the regulations / ALC Policy (building a farm access road, or fill for flood proofing on a residence with a valid building permit), then handed it back over to the locals for monitoring.  Our role there was more along the lines to assist with the ALCA interpretations.

On the matters that were outright non-farm – ie large depositions of fill or other materials that appeared to be unsuitable, we always tried to work together.  We could also issue a SWO and proceed down our ALC enforcement procedures to see if we can get compliance.  In other cases, like some in Richmond, where they didn’t have a bylaw, I had a great working relationship with their bylaw officers, where they might provide monitoring on an ALC enforcement, like the one near Westminster Highway and No.6 Road, or where they did have a bylaw, I would provide assistance to their legal case in the form of affidavits, maps or whatever they needed.

4. Is the current ALC enforcement strong enough?

Loo: Short answer no.  Not even close.  In the more built-up areas like Metro Vancouver the local governments have some pretty good bylaws which help deal with the ‘non-farm’ uses, but it’s always difficult because local governments also have their share of limited resources.  They also come from a different perspective and have a different mandate than the ALC.  From a staff perspective, I think the people in the field get it.  I don’t think the local councils really understand, because they don’t see it, or in some cases, don’t really appreciate their bylaw staff.  Some councillors just feel all they do is go around and issue parking tickets

5. Has the government systematically weakened the ALC only to then point at it as an ineffective, wasteful tool to be tossed out so there’s one less ‘nuisance’ or hindrance to economic development

I feel that the government has systematically weakened the ALC for sure (as well as Environmental Protection).  Between choking them on the funding, crazy rules on what they can spend the money on when they were given the increase the first year and not really allowing the ALC to implement the changes to the legislation required to give them a decent chance. On the big projects and developments, it works mostly because most local governments require development permits and individuals can’t subdivide the property  as part of a development.  So it works there.  Where it doesn’t work so well (and the reason I was recruited originally) was the fact that there was so much money in the movement of fill and the dumping of it in the farm land.  I’m not talking about the road issue on Finn Road either

I’m talking large scale dumping where there was no other real reason other than to elevate their property or to create a level area with the residences.  We had a lot of files, especially in Langley, Abbotsford, Delta, Richmond and Maple Ridge just to name a few.  A lot of companies were telling us they needed to raise the farm area because it was being flooded.  In some cases, they were legit and the commission (after reviewing the agrologist reports and supporting documents) authorized them

I certainly wouldn’t call the ALC a hindrance. It’s more like a check valve or brakes on a car.  Something that allows you to slow things down to take a good look and weigh the pros and cons.  Although I suppose if you were a big supporter of the Fraser Institute, then maybe you would call the brakes on your car as a hindrance to going faster

If one really examines the history of the ALC, you will see that they’ve made some concessions to allow for things like community growth or they work with the local government to come up with some thoughtful planning, like they did in Abbotsford with the city in the Country Plan.  Even up north with the Oil & Gas Commission.  I think all in all, the delegation agreement to give them some more authority was working.  From what I recall, the ALC commissioned an audit of the decisions and found most to be within the ALC mandate and just needed a little “tweek” on the rehabilitation side of things.

If the Government wants the ALC to be more efficient, then resource them properly to allow them to do what they are supposed to do.  If farming isn’t working, then maybe they need to bring back some of the “extension” projects like they used to have.  From what I remember, way back when, the Ministry of Agriculture’s regional agrologists would spend some time with and provide some advice to local farmers.  Now I don’t think they do that at all

You know what I found interesting though.  In the six years that I worked there, I met two MLAs.  One was Lana Popham, then Agriculture Critic.  And the other was Linda Reid of East Richmond.  Honestly, those were the only two that actually spent some time with me on a “ride along” to see what it is that we were dealing with, especially Ms. Popham!