Plans for a regional foodland trust initiated by Saanich five years ago promise to increase regional food security, but could also impact local taxpayers.
The public heard these points last month as Saanich voted unanimously to support efforts by the Capital Regional District to operate a foodlands trust in partnership with a non-profit organization. Council also endorsed the addition of Saanich-owned land to the trust with staff asked to bring forward a report. Lands previously identified for such an addition include the Panama Flats.
“Finally, the farmlands trust vote is here,” said Coun. Nathalie Chambers, who has been a long-time advocate of the idea. “We have been working on this initiative for many years.”
A report from the Capital Regional District defines farmlands trusts as “organizations that maintain land for agricultural and food provisioning activities in perpetuity” with the actual landholder leasing the land to farmers at competitive rates.
The CRD’s proposed trust would see a non-profit organization manage inactive local government-owned land formerly used for agriculture. Participating municipalities can either donate the land to the trust or provide use of the land for a minimum of 10 years.
Chambers said the trust would ease the economic pressures on local farmers. According to the CRD report, Vancouver Island has experienced the greatest increase in farmland value in British Columbia, where it currently sells for up to $100,000 per acre, an increase of nearly 25 per cent over two years.
“The high cost of land is a barrier not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business,” it reads. “This is due in part to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.”
This trend towards growing land speculation has happened against the backdrop of declining food production on local agricultural land. According to the CRD report, only 50 per cent of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) within CRD boundaries is in use. (By way of background, ALR land constitutes seven per cent (or 16,000 hectares) of the CRD’s area.
Yet authorities expect that the regional population will increase by 27.4 per cent by 2036 to 441,800, a “rate of growth that will put additional development pressure on the region’s foodlands,” it reads.
“There is a growing population and decreasing land base,” said Chambers in warning the public’s the region’s food insecurity.
Saanich’s support for the initiative was unanimous but the public also heard warning voices.
Coun. Susan Brice said Saanich has long supported the creation of such a trust, but also acknowledged that not every municipality in the region will come on board. So far, Central Saanich, North Saanich, and Sidney have joined Saanich in drafting statements of support.
“You may not have 13 joining, you may only four or five joining,” said Coun. Judy Brownoff. This level of participation, she added, could have consequences for Saanich taxpayers.
“If they don’t sign up for the service, it is impacting us,” she said.
Regional officials peg the cost of participation between $127,500 and $143,000 with costs depending on the number of participating municipalities.
While not every municipality would be able to donate land, the public heard that they could end up making financial contributions in lieu.
Speaking to the Saanich News after the vote, Mayor Fred Haynes said Saanich with its unique urban and rural mix has land available for the trust. “We look forward to seeing how other municipalities step up,” he said.