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British Columbia Losing ground: B.C. farmers feel overlooked by legislation aimed at curbing misuse of protected land

Bill Dhiman prunes the branches of blueberry bushes on his farm in Richmond, B.C. New provincial and city legislation caps the maximum sizes of new houses on agricultural land, such as his family's 10-acre farm.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Bill Dhiman’s family has farmed in Canada for 30 years, and in India before that for so long that they’ve lost count. The three-generation family of six live in a 4,500-square-foot house on the edge of their 10-acre blueberry farm, and Mr. Dhiman dreams of building a bigger house in coming years as his family expands to include more children.

But new legislation introduced by both the British Columbia government and the city of Richmond could derail that plan. The rules, which cap the maximum size of new houses on agricultural land to 5,400 square feet provincially and 4,300 square feet in Richmond, are intended to crack down on speculation and using protected land for other purposes than farming.

The protected land designation in the province was enacted decades ago. In 1973, worried by the loss of agricultural land to development, the NDP government of the day created the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which set aside about 5 per cent of the province’s total land mass for agriculture. Richmond was a key part of the package, with nearly 40 per cent of its land area in the reserve.

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Supporters of the cap on farmland house sizes say it will help protect B.C.’s most fertile farmland from the potential misuse of tax breaks meant for legitimate farmers, and also ensures that land prices are not being pushed beyond the reach of young farmers. Opponents, such as the Dhiman family, say hard-working, multigenerational farming families are unfairly being caught up in efforts to curtail improper land use, including the operation of illegal hotels, that are already prohibited and should be handled with bylaw enforcement.

“The new house-size restriction will impact my father’s legacy of our family living and farming together,” Mr. Dhiman said. “The new regulations make me feel horrible, because this changes the way that we farm and is creating a divide between the farming community and city residents.”

Veteran Liberal MLA Rich Coleman last month stood in the legislature during a debate on the provincial legislation, shortly before it passed on Nov. 27. In opposition to the bill, he shared a story of two farmer friends in his riding of Langley East who voiced concerns identical to the Dhimans. “What we say to people who want to actually build a generational farm is: ‘We’re going to decide for you because, quite frankly, we think that we know better about what your family needs,’ ” Mr. Coleman said.


Bill Dhiman tends the blueberry bushes on his farm with worker Santokh Singh. In Richmond, nearly 40 per cent of the land area is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve, a region legally set aside for farming by the NDP provincial government in the 1970s.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Three generations of the Dhiman family live in this home, next to their blueberry farm. They planned to build a bigger house for more children and an adult sister moving back in.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail


FERTILE GROUND

What B.C. defines as its Lower Mainland-Southwest agricultural region – an area that takes in Metro Vancouver (including Richmond), the Fraser Valley, Squamish and the Sunshine Coast – accounts for only 4.1 per cent of farmland in the province but generates 65.3 per cent of farm sales, according to 2016 Statistics Canada figures. That out-sized performance reflects fertile soil and high-value crops, including blueberries and cranberries, both important B.C. exports. The province wants to protect that value.

But the appeal for landowners to use farmland for other purposes has come from rising property values, a provincial tax regime that provides significant tax breaks to farmland and demand for ever-larger homes. A 2016 report by Metro Vancouver found a typical four-hectare lot in Richmond would be subject to $1,025 in annual property tax if classed as farmland. Without it, the tax bill would be $10,511.

Meanwhile, foreign buyers find Richmond farmland attractive because, if it meets certain income thresholds, it qualifies as farm class and is exempt from an additional property tax for foreign nationals, which was introduced at 15 per cent in 2016 and hiked to 20 per cent this year. Farm-class land is also exempt from a new property tax, approved in November, that largely targets out-of province owners. (In general, houses built on farmland are subject to both taxes.)

Confusing regulations about what is allowed on ALR land contributes to the perception that it is "open for development,” said an interim government report on agricultural reform released earlier this year.

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RICHMOND’S AGRICULTURAL

LAND RESERVE

Farmland is about 39 per cent of the land base

in Richmond amounting to approximately

5,563 hectares.

5

0

VANCOUVER

KM

River Rd.

Vancouver

International

Airport

RICHMOND

91

Granville Ave.

No. 1 Rd.

No. 2 Rd.

99

Williams Rd.

DELTA

Agricultural Land

Reserve (ALR)

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: CITY OF RICHMOND

RICHMOND’S AGRICULTURAL LAND RESERVE

Farmland is about 39 per cent of the land base

in Richmond amounting to approximately 5,563 hectares.

5

0

VANCOUVER

KM

River Rd.

Vancouver

International

Airport

RICHMOND

91

Granville Ave.

No. 1 Rd.

No. 2 Rd.

99

Williams Rd.

DELTA

Agricultural Land

Reserve (ALR)

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: CITY OF RICHMOND

RICHMOND’S AGRICULTURAL LAND RESERVE

Farmland is about 39 per cent of the land base in Richmond amounting

to approximately 5,563 hectares.

VANCOUVER

River Rd.

Vancouver

International

Airport

RICHMOND

91

Granville Ave.

No. 1 Rd.

No. 2 Rd.

99

Williams Rd.

DELTA

5

0

KM

Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR)

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CITY OF RICHMOND


RISE OF FARM MANSIONS

That perception has played out on the ground. In 2010, the average house size of permit applications on ALR land in Richmond was about 8,500 square feet. By 2015, that average had climbed to about 13,000 square feet. Critics, such as the activist group Richmond FarmWatch, have pointed to this as evidence that farmland is being increasingly used to build large dream homes instead of for farming.

In 2016, the city got an application for a house in the ALR with a proposed size of about 41,000 square feet, and 21 bedrooms. (The application was denied.)

As home sizes across Richmond grew, property prices soared. An April, 2017, report by Site Economics, a Vancouver consulting firm, for the City of Richmond found that “the current ability to build a very large house in the ALR … is the primary factor driving small ALR lot prices to levels in the order of $750,000 to $1.5-million per acre.”

Richmond council began debating the question of capping home sizes on ALR land in early 2017, but many farmers vehemently opposed the idea.

Meanwhile, jurisdictions including Port Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Delta set their own limits, imposing caps on house sizes that range from 3,550 to 7,000 square feet. Surrey capped its farm-home plate – the area in which the residential building and other related structures must be located – to 25,000 square feet, with no limit on the house itself.

In early 2017, Richmond council began a public consultation process, triggering a flurry of applications from landowners fearing a crackdown. Between January and April, the city received 45 applications for homes on ALR land – more than double the number received the entire previous year – with most of those for dwellings between 12,000 and 15,000 square feet.

Council brought in a moratorium on new applications in March, and in May brought in new municipal bylaws capping homes on lots larger than half an acre to about 11,000 square feet.

The Dhimans, and farming groups such as the Richmond Farmland Owners Association, which comprises more than 80 families owning more than 2,500 acres of farmland in the city, viewed this as an acceptable compromise. The palatial estates that drew the most criticism would be prohibited while larger homes would still be accepted.

But critics said those limits didn’t go far enough. This month, after an October election in which several new councillors came on board, Richmond city council voted to halve the maximum house size allowance to about 5,400 square feet – which would have brought it in line with the proposed provincial legislation – then further amended it to 4,300 square feet. That proposal passed on Dec. 18, with Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, as well as two councillors, voting against it.

“My feeling was the issue was far more than just size of the house,” Mr. Brodie said. “I felt that reducing the size from 500 to 400 square metres [4,300 square feet] is detrimental to farmers and farming.”

Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at B.C.’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said tight restrictions are essential to enhance food security, encourage young farmers and protect scarce fertile land.

“There is not one square inch of ALR land in southwest B.C. that is priced to sell for agriculture – it is priced to sell for speculation and rural residences,” Dr. Mullinix said. “And that pricing structure locks out existing farmers for the most part – but absolutely locks out aspiring and new-entrant farmers.”

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Some farmers, meanwhile, say they were not properly consulted on the matter and counter that the restrictions do not reflect the realities of modern-day farming, where farmers sometimes live in big houses and have other sources of income.

“There is a long history of farming in this country and it is often easy to cling to romanticized notions of simplicity, struggle and sacrifice,” read a news release from the BC Farmland Owners Association, which says it represents 388 farming families who farm more than 16,000 acres of land. "In today’s modern world, this idealized image of farming is no longer true, nor is it feasible.

“We believe that restricting the rights of farmers is completely contrary to the policies of the provincial government, which encourage farming.”


The view from beekeeper Bob Fisher's property in Richmond, B.C., on Nov. 10, 2016. Mega-mansions and tax breaks

In a 2016 Globe and Mail investigation, Kathy Tomlinson looked at how investors and speculators took prime agricultural land out of production as the B.C. government's outdated tax system allowed them to exploit incentives intended only for those who farm.

Read more


GOOD INVESTMENTS, BAD PRACTICES

Agricultural land has been an attractive target for misuse. A 2016 Globe and Mail investigation found that some investors and speculators, for example, purchased farmland to use for development and illegal hotels. Just down the road from the Dhiman farm, a 12,000-square-foot mansion last year served as an underground casino, according to B.C. civil-forfeiture documents that described gaming tables, “hundreds” of liquor bottles and an altercation that left one patron with a broken nose.

And just this month, The Globe identified a two-storey, 12,000-square-foot home on Richmond ALR land advertising three “deluxe standard rooms” available for between $60 and $100 per night.

The Best Home Inn says on its website that it has a licence issued by the city to offer accommodations, but city spokesman Ted Townsend said that is not true.

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(Small bed-and-breakfast operations are permitted on farmland with a licence from the city; larger, hotel-like services are prohibited completely.)

Realtors have promoted farmland as prime sites for large, custom homes. One ad posted last December on a Chinese-language classified site, for example, told prospective buyers they could build a 10,764-square-foot dream home on the sprawling property. On another site, a realtor falsely claimed that a five-acre piece of ALR land in east Richmond came with government approval to build a 14,000-square-foot house.

B.C.’s protected farmland has also been used as a garbage dump. The government’s interim report found some landowners in the South Coast region were charging from $50 to $200 per truck load to take fill – including asphalt and concrete – and accepting, on average, 43,000 square metres, or 6,000 truckloads, per property.

The new provincial legislation also increases penalties for dumping construction debris, toxic waste and other fill in the ALR.


The Dhimans, a family of six, have farmed in Canada for 30 years and regularly supply markets throughout Metro Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

‘THE WAY WE LIVE IS VERY EFFICIENT’

Bill Dhiman’s brother, Ben, is a director with the Richmond Farmland Owners Association. He says the broad-based legislation fails to consider the cultural factors of today’s farmers: Many farming families in Richmond are of south and East Asian descent, and it is not uncommon for these communities to have several generations living under one roof.

“Why is there such a big push to make [farmhouses] into single-family homes that cater to three or four people? When you have 10 heads under one roof, that helps alleviate Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis. The way we live is very efficient – but people seem to have a problem with the way that we live.”

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When Mr. Coleman stood in the legislature and spoke of these concerns, it was farmers similar to the Dhimans that he had in mind.

“This isn’t people that are out there building estates with circular drives and fountains," he said. “This is people who are running hundreds and hundreds of acres of blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, who work dawn to dusk almost 365 days a year.”

In an interview, Mr. Coleman, who has previously served as deputy premier of the province, said there are some clear misuses of agricultural land that need to be addressed, “but you’ve got to recognize, at the same time, don’t throw the real farmers under the bus.”

Amy Sang also owns a 10-acre farm in Richmond, where she tends to a vineyard and grows vegetables that she sells directly to customers. She lives with seven family members in a 5,000-square-foot home and owns a second dwelling on the property that is used to house seasonal workers and store produce.

She thinks that if farmers have a legitimate need for a larger house and the structure respects the farm-home plate, then there shouldn’t be restrictions on allowable home size.

Amy Sang thinks there shouldn't be restrictions on farmers' house sizes as long as they have a legitimate need for more space.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

After pushback from farmers, the provincial legislation on Nov. 27 passed with amendments to allow those with outstanding permits to be grandfathered in. The legislation has received royal assent and is expected to come into effect in early 2019.

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B.C. Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham, who introduced the bill, says she has heard concerns that have been raised and emphasizes that legitimate farmers who require houses larger than 5,400 square feet can, with support from their local government, apply to the ALC for an exemption.

The ALC would then look at whether the farm is being actively farmed, whether the house size is justifiable in relation to productivity and whether those residing in the house will assist in farming operations, she said.

“It’s really clear when you assess a property if it is a multigenerational farming operation,” Ms. Popham said in an interview. “And if it is, we really support that.”

Ms. Popham said she is bothered by accusations that the proposed legislation is discriminatory against certain ethnic groups.

“There’s a lot of talk that this is a South Asian issue, a Chinese issue, but we have the same situations up in the Cariboo, and in the north, with ranching families,” she said. “There are a lot of families up there that have the grandma and grandpa that started the ranch, and they’ve got three generations living on the farm.

“So it’s unfortunate that it’s been brought down to, mostly I hear, a South Asian issue. But it really isn’t; it’s a farming issue.”

Ms. Popham is also in discussions with other ministers about increasing the dollar amount of farm products that must be sold to reap property-tax benefits, currently $2,500 on land larger than two acres. The BC Farmland Owners Association said it was pleased to see the 11th-hour amendments to the bill, but that the fight will continue.

“We still believe that the house size is too restricted and the government has created more hoops for farmers to jump through if they want something even a little bigger,” said Gunraj Gill, a spokesman for the group.

“We want to continue working with the government when regulations are formed so that we can make further changes, if possible.”

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