Metro Vancouver municipalities are now voting on local acceptance of the far-reaching Regional Growth Strategy bylaw, which will govern Metro Vancouver until 2040. Like a stealth bomber, the bylaw has low visibility but high impact.
In at least one aspect, which is the bylaw’s encroachment on the Agricultural Land Reserve in defiance of the Agricultural Land Commission, Metro staff have information that is crucial for enabling informed decisions by local governments and yet have kept it to themselves.
In brief, the Metro bylaw violates the Agricultural Land Commission Act. After an early caution from the commission, Metro inserted a disclaimer, but the commission did not find it acceptable. Metro kept defying the commission.
The Richmond-based Garden City Lands Coalition Society eventually sought a legal opinion from West Coast Environmental Law about it. We (the society) and WCEL lawyer Andrew Gage agreed that he would release his opinion to Metro and us at the same time, and Gage sent it to Metro’s in-house lawyer.
We soon realized that the WCEL legal opinion wasn’t reaching councils. As a stopgap, we started sending it, along with the commission’s letters, to councils as they approached their bylaw-approval meeting dates. Two weeks after Metro received the legal opinion, there is still no sign of councils receiving it from Metro.
So now there’s a broader issue. Councils think they are making informed choices, but the needed information about options is not reaching them.
In this ALR matter, one option is for councils to accept Metro’s disclaimer, which essentially says that the Metro bylaw respects the provincial law it may be breaking. The second option is to accept the judgment of the Agricultural Land Commission, a provincial tribunal. Gage’s legal opinion has clarified that second option, even providing an example of the results of the Metro disclaimer, which are “clearly absurd”.
When Metro doesn’t inform councils about that second option, there may be no informed choice. Councils don’t know they’re approving something wrong.
Our e-mail messages to councils may help, even though the balanced information from Metro is what’s really needed. Here’s what we just sent to three councils:
Mayor and Councillors:
Re: your upcoming vote on the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) bylaw:
We believe you aim to uphold the law. However, the RGS bylaw breaks the Agricultural Land Commission Act. Particular ALR parcels in Richmond and the Township of Langley are illegally designated “General Urban” in RGS Maps 2 and 3, affecting at least RGS Sections 1.1–3.1 inclusive.
Before the first reading, Metro Vancouver received a warning letter from Brian Underhill, the executive director of the Agricultural Land Commission, but ignored it. Well before the third reading of January 2011, Metro was notified by ALC chair Richard Bullock to correct the illegality. Still, when Metro directors voted, they had been poorly informed about the illegality.
To end any doubt, a legal analysis from Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law to our NGO society has explained the illegality in depth.
Before writing that legal opinion, Andrew Gage welcomed input from Metro. He wrote a preliminary opinion on the Environmental Law Alert blog, published a lengthy response from a Metro regional planner, and discussed the issue with the Metro in-house lawyer, whom you will see as a cc on the opinion. Andrew Gage’s legal analysis takes all the Metro input into account. Statements from the tribunal should be sufficient in themselves, but the independent legal opinion removes any trace of doubt.
To uphold the law of British Columbia, please withhold approval of the Metro Vancouver RGS bylaw until the illegal designations of ALR land are corrected to the satisfaction of the Agricultural Land Commission.
The commission will prevail in any case, but it deserves respect, not adversarial challenges to its authority that tarnish Metro and member municipalities. And citizens need you—informed council members who stand up for what’s right.
Jim Wright is president of the Garden City Lands Coalition Society in Richmond.