Royal Oak Golf Course will be judged on soil, Popham says

Royal Oak Golf Course will be judged on soil, Popham says

One year check-in with Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham on horses, weed, golf courses and more

One year into her appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Saanich South Lana Popham has accomplished a lot, with a lot more to go.

Popham spoke from her new Saanich office on Glanford Avenue, just a short distance from the Royal Oak Golf Course. The golf course is not only within her electoral district, it’s at the heart of many issues the ministry and the ALC is facing. As the popularity of golf courses wanes, the speculation be some that golf courses in the ALR should be developed for housing.

The golf course in Royal Oak is expected to be submitted to the Agricultural Land Commission for removal from the ALR. Opinions currently differ on the future of the golf course, which closed in 2015, and was bought last year for $3.5 million.

“I hear people say that they want the land to stay in the ALR to preserve the natural setting but really the ALR is about productive farming,” Popham said. “That’s not a natural setting, it means trees will be lost, there will be activity and odours. So when people think about what they want with that piece of land as an asset, do they want a working farm in the middle of Royal Oak, do they want a park, or do they want development.”

A representative of the Royal Oak Golf Course said regardless of the soil – which he claims has a lot of infill – the property is in an unsuitable location for farming, immediately adjacent to homes. If it gets sent to the Agricultural Land Commission they will make the decision based on the productivity of that land, Popham said.

“Golf courses are temporary uses of ALR,” she said. “You can put forward arguments to say there’s a housing development right beside it but really [ALC] will make the majority of their decisions based on soil classification and capability of food production.”

The ALR and farming is what brought Popham to politics. As a child on Quadra Island, Popham’s dad installed a living beehive in the bathroom.

“I’m not kidding, the hive was between the bathtub and the toilet.”

In May she launched Day of the Honey Bee to promote the importance of, and threat of, declining bee populations. Bees and food security remain two of her biggest passions, which has meant a long time studying the ALR both as critic, and now as minister.

“It’s been a giant learning curve, even as opposition critic for 10 years, it was steep,” Popham said. “I was sworn in during wildfire season 2017 and hit the ground running. In some ways it’s good, as you learn how to operate quickly… you learn a lot, I am so grateful I have another three years because I have a lot I want to do.”

From the start of her appointment Popham has wanted to revitalize and strengthen the ALR through legislation and regulations.

The August-released findings from the Agricultural Land Commission bylaw review (which Popham commissioned earlier) found the ALC is too often making land use decision that will, or won’t, lead to development. The review was lead by Jennifer Dyson, who was appointed chair of the ALC after Frank Leonard’s three year appointment ran out.

It’s the backbone of some significant changes coming to the ALC, starting with a return to one-zone system.

Popham also said to expect regulations around mega mansions on ALR land.

“We’ll be putting a stop to that, by changing the legislation,” Popham said. “We’re going to have a maximum size that you can have… there will also be regulations on where [a house] can be put on that land, so we don’t see these houses in the middle of the farm anymore, because it takes away from the capacity of that farm.”

One of the issues surrounding mega homes is illegal infill brought into the ALR, which is another issue prevalent in Saanich and the Lower Mainland.

“We’re putting a stop to that too,” Popham said.

The government recently made it possible for the municipalities to ban cement bunkers on ALR land, specifically for growing cannabis.

“I don’t believe we should be paving ALR… for a product that we really don’t have a handle on yet? If [weed] takes off we potentially could pave all the entire Agricultural Land Reserve.”

Grow cannabis wherever you want, just keep it off of class one soil, the very best soil, she said. (Popham recused herself from policy on it as her partner, a GP, prescribes it.)

There is some debate, as you can pave pads for greenhouses. And in Delta a large number of greenhouses are being converted from food production to cannabis production.

“The problem is if we start making rules about what type of agricultural product you can grow, it becomes a slippery slope. Poultry production is usually cement-based and usually in the ALR. Flower production isn’t edible but it’s agriculture [and often on pads]. Cannabis is unpredictable, we’re trying to reign it in a little bit as we see where it’s going.”

One of the ministry’s main focuses for food security is getting farmers back on the land, which has become “totally unaffordable,” Popham said.

“We’ve set the ALR up almost like a land bank for development,” Popham said. “… We haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the ALR.”

If the coming changes are done right ALR land values will lower in relation to development potential and other programs, such as land-matching owners with farmers, can take off.

“I’m hoping the message will be loud and clear, that ALR land is for farming and the speculation will die off” Popham said. “It’s not going to be right away but, eventually, it will change the value of that land.”

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