The Agricultural Land Commission is imposing a steep increase in application fees, with a "money back guarantee" if applications aren't processed within 90 business days.
Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick and ALC chair Frank Leonard announced the new policy at the B.C. legislature Thursday, to take effect April 1.
For zone one, the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan, the application fee goes from $600 to $1,500. In zone two, the remainder of the province, the fee goes from $600 to $900. Letnick said the majority of farm income is generated in zone one, so farmers can afford to pay more.
The increase still doesn't cover the estimated $3,000 cost of processing an application, most of which are for non-farm use or an exclusion or subdivision of agricultural land. Letnick said the province is adding an additional $1.1 million to the ALC budget to make up the difference.
Leonard, appointed last year after Letnick terminated the contract of long-time chair Richard Bullock, said he found almost no decisions were being made within the 60 working days that is his new benchmark. Most were taking a year or more.
"I met people in their 80s who had been waiting two years for a decision," he said.
NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham said she's concerned that the short deadline for commission decisions is a drift toward becoming an "application machine" rather than the ALC's mandate to protect farmland.
Leonard said subdivision and land exclusion applications mean considerable financial gain for applicants, so the increased fee isn't a deterrent for them. Letnick said approved non-farm uses can mean extra income for farmers and are a priority for the government.
The ALC has doubled its compliance and enforcement staff to four, and Leonard said the additional budget will allow him to add two more this year.
"Our intention is not only to give the ALC more credibility in terms of enforcing legislation and regulations, but with the budget we have we'll be able to get them around the province," Leonard said. "So we won't have six people in Burnaby waiting for the phone to ring."
The commission is also adding new fees, $150 for reviewing documents, $350 per site inspection and monitoring fees of $500 to $2,000 annually for sites that require ongoing monitoring such as soil fill and removal or gravel extraction.