New rules banning mansions in the Agricultural Land Reserve will be felt in Abbotsford, where the majority of new houses built on farmland this year will exceed 7,500 square feet.
On Monday, the province announced it wants to require that anybody wishing to build a house larger than 5,400 square feet on ALR land must show such a building supports farming. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) will also have to sign off on additional homes on ALR land under the proposed legislation, which has not yet become law.
“Mega-homes and lifestyle estates preclude land from being used by agriculture ever again,” Jennifer Dyson, the chair of the ALC, said in a press release. “These large-scale residences for non-farmers impede agriculture, drive speculation and further erode the land base. A farmer will not be able to afford to purchase these properties with the value of just the home in the millions.”
If passed, the new law will dramatically change what kind of homes are built on Abbotsford farmland, an analysis of building permit data by The News shows.
Of the 21 building permits issued for new homes on ALR land in Abbotsford this year, all but six will be larger than 5,400 square feet. Some of the new homes will be double the limit allowed for new houses if the proposed rules become a reality; five building permits were issued this year for homes in excess of 10,000 square feet.
Those projects will be allowed to proceed, and the province says existing homes will be grandfathered in. But new homes on ALR land will have to be, on the whole, dramatically smaller than those currently being built.
Big houses abound around Abbotsford: permits for 125 structures over 5,400 square feet have been issued since the start of 2016. But while the bulk of those homes are built in urban areas, when it comes to the very biggest of the bunch, homebuilders tend to look to farmland.
Of 22 homes larger than 8,000 square feet to start construction over the last three years, 17 were located in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Those include all seven of the city’s new super-mansions, larger than 10,000 square feet.
Dave Sidhu, who recently ran for council and finished ninth and who lives with family in a modest home in the ALR, said the 5,400-square-foot limit could be too low for some extended families.
He said his current home, which houses himself and his parents, is only around 3,000 square feet, but a larger house may be needed when a third generation comes around.
His family has lived on their west Abbotsford property since the ’80s. They once farmed the land, but now lease it to a family friend.
At the same time, such homes don’t need to be 15,000 square feet in size, he said. (Three such homes have been built in Abbotsford over the last decade.)
Homes larger than 5,400 square feet are still allowed under the proposed rules, but they will require the ALC to sign off on such buildings, with applicants needing to show that such a home would support farming.
The new legislation to amend the ALC act would also crack down on the dumping of damaging fill on farmland, and remove the two-zone system implemented by the BC Liberals.
It wouldn’t, notably, address some of the concerns raised by the City of Abbotsford in a letter to the province earlier this year.
In that letter, the city asked the province for help enforcing ALR rules and to make it more difficult for hobby farm estate owners to qualify for property tax breaks. The city has halted its extensive AgRefresh process while waiting to see how the province would follow through on its promise to “revitalize” the ALR.
The new legislation addresses some of the questions that prompted that pause, but leaves others open.
Agriculture minister Lana Popham said the legislation won’t likely be the end of changes.
“I anticipate we’ll have more changes coming that focus on strengthening governance and decision-making for the ALC,” she said in a statement emailed to The News.