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Region wants rules to block farm mega-houses

A farmland mansion in Ladner. Metro Vancouver and the province are working towards new regulations to control the spread of large estate homes in the ALR. - File
A farmland mansion in Ladner. Metro Vancouver and the province are working towards new regulations to control the spread of large estate homes in the ALR.
— image credit: File

Metro Vancouver politicians are urging the province to intervene to slow the spread of huge mansions that are chewing up urban farmland needed to grow food.

Victoria is weighing how best to tackle the issue and released a discussion paper that lays out a menu of possible options.

At issue is the construction of huge estate homes – often on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) – that make farming less efficient and put the property's price out of reach of ordinary farmers.

Reforms have been proposed in the past by individual municipalities but beaten back by opposing groups of landowners and realtors.

Both Pitt Meadows and Surrey shelved attempts to tighten regulation of farm manor homes in recent years after opposition.

Metro agriculture committee chair Harold Steves said he and others on the committee want the province to enact minimum standards that would be enforced consistently to restrict the size and location of homes built in the ALR.

"They're building 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot houses with swimming pools and tennis courts scattered throughout the agricultural area of the land," Steves said.

"It's impossible to have crops and farm equipment when you have to work around a number of buildings. It destroys the productive use of that land."

A provincially mandated minimum standard could allow cities to go further and add stronger protections if they wish, he added.

If only some cities tighten the rules, it's feared the problem will simply be shifted around the region or pushed east into the Fraser Valley Regional District.

In Richmond alone, Steves estimates, another 2,000 acres of farmland in the ALR stands to be lost to the construction of big houses and recreational amenities unless the trend is stopped.

So far, Delta has taken the toughest stand against the problem of badly sited farmland mansions, he said.

Delta limits house sizes and defines a farm "homeplate" on agricultural properties where houses and other residential uses must be contained. They can't sprawl deeper than 60 metres from the front property line, unless there's on-site migrant worker housing, in which case the limit is 100 metres.

Richmond doesn't limit the size of houses but requires they be within 50 metres of the road or property line.

That's been problematic, Steves said, because outbuildings and other uses aren't covered, so secondary houses, garages, pools and the like sometimes cut much deeper into the property.

Sometimes garages and barns have second floors built with rented secondary suites.

Richmond had aimed to extend the 50-metre maximum setback to include accessory buildings but ran into community resistance.

"There's a tremendous amount of opposition," Steves said. "There's a huge lobby, mainly from realtors."

When Richmond's original bylaw was drafted, Steves said, it never occurred to anyone that farmers would be building swimming pools and tennis courts on their land.

The problem is that in most cases the owners aren't serious farmers, but buyers who want an estate lifestyle in the Lower Mainland without having to pay the price to do so on urban residential land.

Farmland is cheaper than large residential-zoned lots and may offer the potential of a future windfall if the land can someday be pulled out of the ALR and subdivided.

Owners who are able to grow something may even qualify for the lower farm property tax rate, even if they grow just a tiny fraction of the land's potential.

That long-standing loophole should also be closed, said Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner, the vice-chair of the agriculture committee.

"It's no different than those who sit on acreages with a horse or a cow and say they're gentlemen farmers and get a tax break," she said. "It was never intended to be for estate homes."

Hepner also backs tough minimal protections set by the province.

But she noted there are some special circumstances to be considered.

In Surrey, she said, some of the large houses on farmland are simply occupied by large families and the land is being actively farmed.

Much farmland is on floodplain where basements can't be built, she said, so allowed house sizes should take that into account.

Metro also suggests exceptions be allowed if it makes more sense to put a house on part of the property that isn't farmable – perhaps it's rocky.

The focus should be on the placement of the house, Hepner added.

"A huge long driveway on a small parcel makes the whole parcel unfarmable," Hepner said. "So we have to take a serious look at (maximum) setbacks."

One option being considered by the agriculture ministry is to regulate farm houses on ALR land only in Abbotsford, Delta, Langley Township and Kelowna, while making the same rules simply guidelines for other cities.

Some Metro directors want the province to charge the Agricultural Land Commission with making the decisions, rather than individual cities.

Metro's board is expected to finalize its position on the issue in April.

Metro also aims to complete an agricultural land use inventory with the agriculture ministry to determine how much of the region's farmland is being actively farmed.

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