The Greater Vancouver region provides an example of agricultural land preservation run riot. The bare facts are as follows. In 1972, the new New Democratic Party government passed the Agricultural Land Commission Act. Its primary objective was to create an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) that is beyond the regulatory powers of local governments. The initial ALR established in 1973-4 was 1,484 km2. Agricultural land losses in the Lower Mainland from 1973-96 were 19 percent of the initial reserve, and net losses in the GVRD (Greater Vancouver Regional District) were only equivalent to 7 percent of the initial ALR. Two-thirds of Lower Mainland losses were in the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD). Net losses provincial wide were only 2 percent. To put British Columbia's efforts in a comparative perspective, in the early 1980s British Columbia lost 1,200 hectares while Ontario lost 17,000 hectares of farmland to urban development. California's losses are about 20,000 hectares per year (Patterson 1997).
The rules have been tightened over the past decade. The ALR declined substantially after 1988, when an Order-in-Council established golf courses as a legitimate ALR use. The result was a proliferation of golf courses in Langley and Surrey, districts which account for 55 percent of the agricultural land in the GVRD. In consequence, the Order was rescinded in 1991. Later amendments removed cabinet appeals and elected politicians from the ALR process, and 1995 legislation introduced right-to-farming which protects ALR farms from municipal regulations.
The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) did allocate some land for urban development, and 18 percent of the current GVRD (54,000 hectares) is classified as vacant. Thus, there is land available for urban development outside the ALR. Despite a trend towards denser development, more than 90 percent of residential land use in the GVRD consists of single-family housing. On the other hand, 51 percent of the housing stock consists of town homes and apartments, compared to 21 percent in Portland and Seattle. Also, about 35 percent of new urban development resulted from conversion of rural residential uses rather than undeveloped land.
In terms of stated policy objectives, Vancouver's ALR was quite successful. The rationale was that it was important to protect prime agricultural land in the Lower Mainland because 3 percent of the agricultural land produced 40 percent of British Columbia's agricultural output. But is this rational? Given that there is a world food market that is easily accessible to wealthy nations and regions, and that British Columbia accounts for a trivial proportion of world food output, why should a rapidly growing metropolitan region (a projected 65 percent increase by 2021) need to have any agricultural production at all? The only answer, and perhaps it is an acceptable answer, is that 85 percent of the electorate approves of the ALR. The only objection to this position is whether the electorate was fully informed about some of the costs of the ALR, in terms of higher house prices and other costs. If the remaining ALR was abolished, it could accommodate 3.6 million more people at current incremental densities!