An independent committee says British Columbia should limit the size of homes permitted on its protected agricultural land, to slow a construction boom in mansions and tamp down real estate speculation and development on some of province’s most fertile farmland.
On Wednesday, the eight-member group submitted a report to the agricultural minister with 13 recommendations for legislative and regulatory change that would better protect B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The reserve was set up in 1973 to protect the province’s best farmland from development and now represents about five percent of B.C.'s total landmass.
One key recommendation was that the province establish a maximum floor size for all primary residences built on ALR properties, noting the government’s current suggestion of almost 5,400 square feet as a good starting point.
"It came up all the time, people felt that it was an abuse of the ALR and increased the levels of speculation on the land,” said committee chair Vicki Huntington, a former independent MLA from Delta South. “They felt that it was detrimental to the preservation of the capacity of the land to be saved for farming, so we felt that it was one of the primary recommendations that we had to make.”
“We’ll see if the government feels that it’s a worthwile one.”
A Globe and Mail investigation in 2016 revealed that investors and speculators exploited tax breaks for farmland by purchasing land designated for farming and using it for development and illegal hotels. B.C. law stipulates that agricultural properties with more than two acres can keep their farm status – and all their tax breaks – as long as they sell just $2,500 worth of farm products a year.
After travelling to nine communities and reviewing hundreds of written submissions, as well as responses to an online survey, over three months earlier this year, the committee determined this type of speculation was mostly a problem “anywhere near the big urban areas,” including parts of Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and around Kelowna, Ms. Huntington said.
Agricultural Minister Lana Popham said she will review the committee’s recommendations over the coming weeks and the committee’s final report is expected to be finished in October.
B.C.'s Green Party, which has a three-MLA caucus supporting the NDP’s minority government, welcomed Wednesday’s report and urged the province to move quickly to limit the size of these homes.
“[The ALR] has been increasingly under threat due to the preponderance of mega mansions, stemming from speculation in our real estate market," stated MLA Adam Olsen, the BC Greens' spokesman for agriculture. “This is driving up prices at a time when the industry is facing a demographic crisis and young farmers are struggling to afford to buy land.”
The Opposition Liberals criticized the report in a news release, but did not mention the recommendation to crack down on house sizes. Before losing government last year, the Liberals said they would consider making real estate speculators pay more tax to invest in this farmland following the Globe investigation.
On Wednesday, the Liberal agriculture critic Ian Paton stated in a release that the committee’s recommendations to overhaul the structure of the commission overseeing the ALR, by abolishing six regional panels, took decision making away from local farmers across the province.
He also opposed the recommendation to rescind a Liberal initiative and merge two zones of the ALR back to one, which the committee said would support more equitable farming by preventing non-farming economic activities from occurring in these areas.