Abbotsford asks for help enforcing ALR rules

City says Agricultural Land Commission needs to increase enforcement resources

If the B.C. government wants to stop the misuse of farmland, it needs to increase enforcement and make it more difficult for hobby farm estate owners to qualify for large tax breaks.

That’s the message from Abbotsford council in a letter sent last week to a committee looking into changes to “revitalize” the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The letter was sent as the city halted its AgRefresh process, which had aimed to revamp Abbotsford’s land-use rules for farm properties. AgRefresh has been in the works for years, but the province’s sparking of a committee to look at changes to ALR rules means any new policies developed by the city could be out of date within a year or two. That led to council’s decision last week to push pause on the process and send a letter outlining the city’s thoughts on how best to improve the ALR.

(The letter was sent prior to – and separate from – the Agricultural Land Commission’s decision to deny a request by the city to exclude land for industrial purposes.)

A 2016 study for AgRefresh found that as many as 400 agricultural properties in Abbotsford are breaking land-use rules. Among other initiatives, AgRefresh was tasked with developing a strategy to bring non-compliant landowners to heel. But although ALR rules are provincial laws overseen by the ALC, municipalities don’t get much enforcement help; the ALC has just five full-time compliance and enforcement officers to cover the entire province. That number was most recently bolstered in December 2015, when two new officers were hired.

That leaves municipalities with a difficult task, particularly in complicated cases in which rule-breaking is not immediately and visibly apparent.

The letter was sent prior to the decision to deny the city’s application to have farmland excluded from the Agricultural Land Reserve in order to provide room for industrial development. The letter did not mention the proposal.

The Ministry of Agriculture noted that it had boosted funding for the ALC in recent years, and that the committee has met with the ALC and discussed compliance and enforcement activities.

Changes to farm-tax policies could also have a huge impact on both city revenues and the bills of those who only barely qualify for the farm status that entitles them to massive property tax breaks.

Depending on the size of a property, owners must meet a certain threshold of farm income in order to qualify for farm status. If they do so, the assessed value of their land is taxed at a farm rate that is usually just a fraction of its actual worth. For example, a home currently on the market for just under $7 million has an assessed value of just $1.3 million, leaving it with a commensurate reduction in the property taxes owed.

The city’s letter notes that while three-quarters of Abbotsford’s land is in the ALR, only 2.1 per cent of all its tax revenue comes from properties from farm classification.

“Changes to farm-tax policy, including raising the farm class income threshold levels, are clearly warranted to balance the benefits being conferred to both the private landowner and society as a whole,” the city’s letter states. “These changes will discourage the use of farmland for lifestyle purposes and help to distinguish between hobby farming estates and commercial farming from a taxation perspective.”

The city suggests raising the threshold will encourage more productive farming, while ensuring that owners of non-productive hobby farms pay their fair share of property taxes.

Asked about the city’s enforcement plan now that AgRefresh is on hold, a city spokesperson said the ALC’s enforcement arm is responsible for contraventions, although Abbotsford’s bylaw team will also respond to calls for service as they are received.

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