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Eri MacArthur, 2, helps her mom my watering her vegetable plot at Shifting Growth Garden in the 2500 Block of East Hastings St. in Vancouver September 5, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Eri MacArthur, 2, helps her mom my watering her vegetable plot at Shifting Growth Garden in the 2500 Block of East Hastings St. in Vancouver September 5, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Community gardens’ zoning designation can mean significantly lower assessments Add to ...

Under an overcast sky, Christa MacArthur is thumbing through seed packets at her garden – two dirt-filled boxes, each 40-by-48 inches, in the North Hastings Community Garden.

Ms. MacArthur says she and her family live in an apartment and spent more than a year on a waiting list for another neighbourhood garden before getting a plot in this one.

“We’re mostly growing things to eat,” Ms. MacArthur said, as her daughter Eri played with a hose nearby. “And food you grow yourself tastes better.”

While that claim may lack supporting data, there is ample evidence that Ms. MacArthur and others like her are changing the landscape of the city. Vancouver has more than 75 community gardens and a dozen or so urban farms, including ones that focus on creating jobs and healthy food in the inner city. Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan calls for “food assets” – including community gardens, farmers’ markets and urban farms – to increase at least 50 per cent over 2010 levels.

But the pattern of turning vacant lots into gardens has also raised questions about taxes and land use, such as whether tax breaks for developers who turn sites into gardens encourage them to put off construction until they can turn a higher profit. For the city, which unveiled a Local Food Action Plan in July, striking a balance between people clamouring for a plot of their own and business, property and tax concerns can be a thorny business.

“Community gardens are viewed as this amazingly beautiful, harmonious experience – but they often generate a remarkable amount of tension,” says Michael Ableman, co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms, whose four Vancouver commercially focused sites aim to grow enough produce to pay employees and turn a profit.. (Unlike a community garden, where people typically pay a membership fee to reserve a plot for personal use, Sole Food is a commercially focused operation that aims to grow enough produce to pay employees and turn a profit.)

“If you look at most of our cities, what is left for people to grow food or experience some bits and pieces of the natural world are literally little specks throughout the city – so they become valuable,” he says.

That’s especially the case in Vancouver, where land is pricey and development sites in short supply – unlike, say, in American cities such as Detroit, where authorities are looking to urban agriculture as one way to spur recovery in the bankrupt city.

When a site goes from vacant lot to garden, B.C. Assessment can reclassify it for tax purposes from “business or commercial” to “recreational or non-profit,” reducing owners’ tax bills by nearly 70 per cent. In 2009 – when eight vacant development lots with an assessed value of $76.2-million were reclassified – city council was worried enough by the trend to order staff to look at options to ensure a “fair taxation model” that would not shift the tax burden to other commercial property owners.

The flurry of conversions, which coincided with a crash in financial and real estate markets, has since slowed. There were no conversions last year and two in each of 2011 and 2010, according to the city’s annual tax distribution reports. The two most recent conversions resulted in tax savings to the owners of about $47,000 – barely a nick to the city’s annual property tax revenue of more than $640-million.

As of 2012, about 7 per cent of all community gardens were temporary conversions, according to information provided by the city.

“Developers and commercial landowners will eventually convert the site back to their intended use, and BC Assessment will reclassify the property to reflect such a change,” a city representative said in an e-mailed response to questions.

That is little comfort to Agnes Crescenzo, who says her Bianca Maria Italian Foods, a block west of the new North Hastings Community Garden, has seen a drop in business since other small businesses closed to be replaced by the garden.

“It’s hurt business in the area,” Ms. Crescenzo said. “There’s less foot traffic and people don’t have reason to stop.”

London Drugs, which has a store on the 2500-block, started buying neighbouring properties with an eye to a mixed commercial-residential development about six years ago.

London Drugs put that development, a 108-unit project dubbed the Alba, on hold this year after deciding there were too many condos coming on to the market.

That cleared the way for London Drugs to connect with Shifting Growth. London Drugs chief executive officer Wynne Powell says his company would have done that with or without the tax savings, which have been estimated at $60,000 to $74,000 a year.

“That was not a factor in the decision at all,” Mr. Powell says, adding that the Alba is a $55-million to $60-million project and that London Drugs expects tax savings to be roughly equivalent to garden-related expenses.

As to whether London Drugs is using the garden to save taxes until it can build and sell its condominiums at a higher price, Mr. Powell says going ahead with Alba would have resulted in unnecessary risks to the company, and its employees.

“We took a balanced approach to what can give the best outcome to as many people as possible – we think this is an interesting approach.”

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