This past July, the City of Port Coquitlam changed its bylaws to cap the size of homes on agricultural land to 5,300 square feet
The amended regulations also included provisions to restrict the farm "home plate" – the portion of an agricultural lot taken up by homes and structures such as driveways – to 10 per cent, with the idea of curbing the creep of giant homes onto designated farm land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
"We had a number of people who were purchasing agricultural land with no intention of it being used for agricultural purposes at all...it was just a place to build a mansion," Brad West, a Port Coquitlam councillor and chair of the city's Smart Growth Committee, said on Sunday.
Those changes are an example of tools local governments can use to ensure land set aside for farming is being used for agriculture.
But relatively few municipalities are putting those tools to use, raising the question of whether the provincial government should play a bigger role in monitoring what is built and where.
"It's hard on the local level to pass these things that are protective of farm land," said Ione Smith, an agrologist and director of Upland Agricultural Consulting, which contributed to a recent Metro Vancouver report on agricultural taxation issues.
"You come up against local issues which prevent local council from providing that level of leadership to pass that kind of restriction. … [S]ome communities I have worked with have suggested it probably won't get passed from a local council level unless they are told they have to, by the province."
British Columbia, however, says it is up to local governments to act.
"The province created a bylaw standard in 2011 that provides local governments with a ready-to-use model that restricts building large residential homes in the centre of ALR lots and ensures the majority of the land is preserved for agricultural use," B.C. agricultural minister Norm Letnick said Sunday in a statement.
Both Delta and Surrey have passed bylaws restricting the size of houses on agricultural land, despite some community opposition.
During public consultations, Port Coquitlam council acknowledged there are some instances in which a larger-than-typical home might be in keeping with farm use, such as in multigenerational, family-owned businesses, Mr. West said.
But those instances were few and far between and the more common scenario was a 10,000-square-foot home being built for an owner that had no intent to farm the property, Mr. West said.
While municipalities can pass land use bylaws, the province controls taxation – another area that some say is ripe for reform.
Ms. Smith would like to see the province overhaul farm income thresholds for tax breaks, saying the current thresholds are not working as intended.
To qualify as a farm for assessment purposes, the land has to produce a prescribed amount of agricultural products: $10,000 for parcels under two acres, $2,500 for parcels from two to 10 acres and $2,500 plus 5 per cent of the agricultural value of the land for parcels bigger than 10 acres.
Those thresholds are supposed to confer benefits to the landowner – in the form of a tax break – and to society, in the form of encouraging farming.
"The properties that are just making that threshold income are probably conferring lots of benefits to the landowner and very few to society," said Ms. Smith, whose company produced a 2015 report for Metro Vancouver.
"All the municipalities that I am working with are coming up against this problem," Ms. Smith said. "We are starting to see land values spike around Victoria, Kelowna – these communities that have never considered farm tax thresholds to be an issue – it's starting to come onto their radar."
The province could take several steps to protect farm land, including closing loopholes related to bare trusts – essentially using a numbered company to avoid property transfer taxes – and introducing legislation to restrict foreign ownership, said Green MLA Andrew Weaver.
"The ALR is firmly within provincial jurisdiction," Mr. Weaver said, adding that future climate change could make B.C. agricultural land even more important in terms of food production if, for instance, droughts cut into output from California.
"When you cede your ability to control your own food supply, you have a problem – maybe not in the next four or five years, but you're not thinking about the long term consequences of your decision," he said.