Governance & Politics
July 6, 2018

McMansioning of Agricultural Land May be Over~Province Finally Stepping In

After the majority of council in the City of Richmond busily carved up the best agricultural land in Canada — in their jurisdiction, sadly — the Minister of Agriculture is finally ready to step in.

As reported by the National Observer, the days of exploiting loopholes in Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) legislation may well be over; the ALR is all about protecting the best arable lands in Canada, and so the Province of British Columbia stated publicly that this land should be, well, exclusively farmland.

With the McMansioning of Class 1 agricultural land at epidemic level in Richmond, the Observer spoke to Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham about this central idea, and the reality that this is happening in other areas in the province too. Her response is telling.

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Thank goodness there’s someone in Victoria taking stock of the snuffing out of farm land in Richmond by council. (In case you somehow missed coverage of this issue in Price Tags, here’s a link to past posts.)
Andrew Weaver of the Green Party minced no words in casting aspersions on Richmond council’s decision, calling on the provincial government to take immediate action to stymie speculation and rampant development of gated estates on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land.

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If you attended Monday night’s City of Richmond council meeting, or watched their live stream, you were witness to one of the biggest land-use travesties of this generation.
Council didn’t just approve residential development on Class 1 farmland, the best in Richmond (and possibly in Canada). The majority voted in favour of mansions up to 10,764 square feet, plus additional dwellings for farm workers up to 3,229 square feet.
That’s almost 14,000 square feet of total living space, effectively available for development by a single person or family. Many are owned by offshore interests.

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Hard to believe, but the story of BC’s provincially-designated Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) being eaten up for real estate development profits is not a new story.
Today, the councillors in the City of Richmond (with the exception of Mayor Brodie, Councillor Steves and Councillor Day) are expected to continue the dizzying trend of getting multi-million dollar land lifts by creating private, gated estates out of the richest farmland in Canada. In doing so, this Council — bullish on doing the right thing for developers seeking profits — are betraying the ALR, which was set up in the 1970’s to guarantee future food security, not to mention farmers’ access to high quality, arable lands.
The Globe and Mail’s Kathy Tomlinson covered this story in November 2016, and updated it last year. City councils elsewhere in Metro Vancouver have been allowing the carving up of farmland for real estate profit, and turning a blind eye to the practice.

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Price Tags has been writing about the carving off of farmland to accommodate other uses seen as more immediate in Metro Vancouver.
Last Friday the Agricultural Land Commission that oversees the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) nixed the City of Abbotsford’s “Abbotsfwd” request for 200 hectares of farmland to go into “future industrial growth”. There was also a request in Langley Township to allow other uses on two blocks of farm land in Bradner. The Commission nixed that too.

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In the City of Richmond, British Columbia, where the most arable soils in Canada are supposedly protected under the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), City Council continues to allow speculators to build houses of over 10,000 square feet on agricultural land over half an acre in size.
These mansions become exclusive gated estates, avoiding the foreign buyers tax, and are now trading at prices no farmer can afford. Delta is no better, using fertile arable land for a truck parking lot next to Highway 17, fast-tracking a casino next to the Fraser River, and using ALR lands as their industrial land piggy bank.
But it’s not just in British Columbia where politicians are fraying away agricultural land for their own in-the-moment development purposes.

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Price Tags has been reporting on the devastating losses of arable Class 1 farmland in Metro Vancouver to gated private estates for the rich.
Only 0.5 percent of all of Canada’s land is considered Class 1 farmland; all of the City of Richmond’s agricultural land are in this class. These soils can grow a multitude of vegetables and provide future food security to unborn generations of people in this region. Places like Abbotsford and their Abbotsfwd Plan aim to cleave off Class 1 farmland for industrial purposes. The City of Richmond doggedly continues to allow mansions of 11,000 square feet on agricultural land, allowing developers to turn these valuable soils into private gated multi-million dollar playgrounds.
Indeed there are 61 proposals that Richmond City Council will consider to further eat up this land. It’s all about profit, not about preserving a valuable resource.

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This story illustrates the problem of expectations when existing regulations are not enough to achieve a higher purpose, like protecting farmland. In Richmond B.C. the City Council has not been proactive in protecting some of the most arable farmland in Canada from becoming private foreign-owned estates, with mansion sized housing and subsequent property assessments so high that the land will never be owned by farmers again.  There was an outcry in the City of Richmond over the size of  the houses being placed on farmland and being taken out of farming and turned into private estates.  In May 2017 Council moved that house size would be capped to 10,763 square feet on lots that were larger than half an acre. The Provincial regulations for the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR)  says that houses on these larger lots  should be no larger than 5,382 square feet, half of the size.
Price Tags Vancouver has written several times about these ALR properties in Richmond which can be purchased without the 20 per cent foreign buyers tax and can also pay lower agricultural property taxes if a minimal farming crop or livestock are raised on the land. We also covered the story of a shell company that purchased a 26 acre piece of farmland in 2014 for $88,000 in Richmond. Now that the property has  a half built mansion on it, with a 2017 assessed property value of  $8.3 million. As  Richmond Farm Watch  and Richmond resident Laura Gillanders observes  “One by one each of these farms is being taken out of production and making sure it is never farmed by a farmer who can live on that land. It goes to show these mansions are not being built for farming.” You can take a look on the Farm Watch site at the “Visuals” section documenting the before and after photos and films of these properties taken out of agricultural production and made into mansioned estates.
As the Richmond News reports it is no surprise that a group called  The Richmond Farmland Owners Association “has launched a campaign and online petition to protect farmers’ property rights and land value.” You can hardly blame them.  They want the current mansion sized dwelling to now remain as the status quo, seeing a reduction in house size as an impediment to property value. Some argue that the large houses are small compared to the land around them. Council does allow for larger square foot houses when it is for larger extended family groups.
There is a Change.org petition which can be viewed here where the Richmond Farmland Owners Association  says that Richmond is infringing on property rights, and that these rights will be taken away if house sizes are reduced . Meanwhile the group Richmond FarmWatch wants the City of Richmond to follow the provincial guidelines for land in the ALR, and are planning a  public rally is to be held at Richmond City Hall Monday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. and you can see a copy of the petition put out by the Richmond Citizens Association here.
The last word goes to land economist  Richard Wozny with Site Economics who  passed away earlier this month . Wozny’s analysis indicated that a house of 4,200 square feet was in line with farm land values, half the size of the currently approved 10,763 square feet for agricultural land over half an acre.
There  is a YouTube video below from March 2017 showing the size of “farm” houses being constructed on agricultural land in Richmond.

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There has been a lot of back and forth about industrial development in Delta.  There is the MLA for Delta South who is still double dipping as a member of Delta Council. He’s insisting he represents farm interests but in the same breath advocates single mindedly for an overbuilt multi billion dollar  ten lane bridge to replace the Massey tunnel. Such a bridge would further industrialize that part of the Fraser River and ensure adjoining lands are  permanently removed from any future agricultural consideration.  And then there’s Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate arm of a Quebec pension fund  who have developed a whopping 1.2 million square foot mall with 6,000 parking spaces on what was the most arable Class 1 farmland in Canada, land that is controlled by the Tsawwassen First Nation.
It is refreshing to hear from someone who is not trying to facilitate the paving over of prime agricultural lands for industry with things like an $18 million dollar parking lot for port bound trucks and port expansion. As the Vancouver Sun’s Larry Pynn writes there are people who are very concerned about the loss of “prime” (the best in Canada) farmland in South Delta. As farmer Rod Swenson states ““Delta is just getting hacked and torn apart by everything — roads, industry and the First Nations treaty.”

The map above shows Brunswick Point north of Deltaport which has 250 hectares of potentially arable lands. Four families farm this area under provincial Crown leases that are due to expire. Mr. Swenson would like to see the lands designated in perpetuity for agriculture and wildlife. This area of Delta is on one of the big migratory flightways on the continent.
Without this designation, this land could be developed for industry through the Tsawwassen First Nation which has the first right of refusal.Even though this land is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, the First Nations do not need to abide by that designation should they control the land. The Tsawwassen First Nations have already extensively developed their lands for two large shopping malls, housing and industrial warehouses related to the port.
Here is where it gets sticky~how important is agricultural land? Will new farming techniques mean that this land can be more intensively used in the future? And should the Province be keeping this land as agricultural for future generations? The trail along the Brunswick Point dike is also a birdwatching area where the spring migration of hundreds of thousands of western sandpipers can be viewed. Is this a resource that should be protected? Or should the local industrial based economy take precedence?

 

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Vicki Huntington needs no introduction to the people living in Delta. Ms. Huntington was the former MLA for Delta South and has an outstanding  background of public service.  Among her many accomplishments she has been a band manager for the Gitanmaax First Nation in Hazelton, worked with the RCMP in their security services, and consulted with  ministers of the Crown in Ottawa. She also served five terms as a Councillor in the City of Delta and two terms as the MLA.  She believes strongly in maintaining farmland for future generations and has been recognized for her strong commitment to farming and nature.
Vicki did not run in the last Provincial election for her independent seat~had she run as an independent, she would have been part of the balance of power in the Provincial government coalition. Instead, Delta Councillor Ian Paton of the Liberals won that seat, and currently double dips between sitting on Delta Council (he is paid $62,000 a year plus his expenses) as well as sitting as an MLA where he makes an additional $106,000 plus. Mr. Paton was named newsmaker of the year  by the Delta Optimist, not for double dipping and denying Delta of a more independent voice on Council, but  because he became  a member of the Provincial legislature.  Mr. Paton claims to want the farmer’s best interest but has been unwavering in the support of a multi-billion dollar ten lane bridge which will industrialize the Fraser River, create congestion on either side of the bridge, and purportedly bring more industry to Delta.
What a shame that the Delta Optimist did not recognize Ms Huntington who was the first independent MLA in over sixty years, and the first to be re-elected. However Ms. Huntington has been appointed to the new committee reviewing the Agricultural Land Commission and Agricultural Land Reserve along with eight other members. Their mission is to provide  “strategic advice, policy guidance and recommendations on how to help revitalize the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission to ensure the provincial goals of preserving agricultural land and encouraging farming and ranching continue to be a priority.”
There is no doubt that the Agricultural Land Reserve is essential to the health and food security of British Columbia and must be maintained for future generations. Price Tags Vancouver has already written about the City of Delta carving out ten acres of farmland for a “truck staging area” for port bound trucks, and how the Port of Vancouver has another  81 acres of farmland in Richmond to add to their 1,457 hectares currently in “industrial use”. It’s a huge problem~should the Port be allowed to take the most arable farmland in Canada to use for truck and container parking and portage? How can farmers be compensated and continue farming when they can garner economic windfalls from development through port expansion or pseudo “farm estates” to well-heeled buyers?
This new Agricultural Land Commission review  committee will seek opinions and feedback and hold meetings with  farming and ranching communities. Recommendations could include changes to the way the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission is set up, regulated and administered. This review is badly needed to ensure that agricultural land is reserved for future populations, and to stop speculators buying up farmland for other purposes. The current MLA for Delta South Mr. Paton is already naysaying the committee appointments,  suggesting that maintaining land in agricultural use restrains the rights of farmers to get extra income from their land. But farmers and speculators did buy that agricultural land  ostensibly for agricultural purposes, and for the future of the region, we must ensure that this agricultural land, the very best in Canada, remains for future generations.

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