OPINION: Richmond is growing McMansions instead of crops on “protected” farmland

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In a puzzling scene at Richmond City Hall in May, City Council opened the barn door for rampant speculation on agricultural farmland. By throwing out the recommendations of their city staff and approving the building of large mansions of over 10,700 square feet on farm properties, Richmond Council extended their pro development stance to land that was supposedly Provincially protected. Council went one step further, allowing the building of an additional dwelling on farming properties of 3,200 square feet, for the “help”. That is 14,000 square feet of residential space approved by Council for each farming property.

Only three Richmond City Council members, Harold Steves, Carol Day and Mayor Malcolm Brodie voted against the motion to build mansions on what is the best farmland in Canada. Harold Steves, who is one of the longest serving City councillors in Canada, was one of the founders of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and farms the land of his grandfather in Richmond.

Farmland in British Columbia is protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) which was enacted in 1973. This legislation was established to ensure that the rich farm soils in the province would remain protected for agricultural use only and be affordable to farmers. Under that legislation houses on agricultural land can be built to a maximum of 5,382 feet, half the size of what Richmond has approved.

With Richmond Council’s pro developer policy decision, any farmland property of over one half acre in size can now become a private, gated estate, with a very large house and with land that will never be affordable to a farmer or come back into food production. By exploiting loopholes in legislation, developers have found a crafty way to buy farmland cheaply, redevelop it with large houses, and resell it at a supernormal profit. And there are financial loopholes for the buyers, many in numbered companies and many from offshore. Buying a mansion on agricultural land means an exemption from the 20 per cent foreign buyers’ tax. And if the land produces a nominal farm product amount of $2,500, and that can be hay or a horse, the property can be taxed at the much lower agricultural property tax rate.

There is also a huge lift enjoyed by speculators in buying agricultural land and morphing it into residential. In 2014 a shell company purchased a 26-acre piece of farmland for $88,000 in Richmond. In 2017 with a mansion half built the property was reassessed at $8.3 million. There is no way that this piece of land will ever return to a farmer’s ownership, and valuations such as this have fueled repurposing land originally protected for future food security.
In fact, the City of Richmond is now processing 61 applications for development after Council’s decision to reinforce the mansioning of farmlands.

Richmond’s European settler background was as the “garden city” for 150 years, based upon the Class 1 rich alluvial soils that took the Fraser River tens of thousands of years to build. These soils are not just for cheap low maintenance operations like blueberries which qualify for farm status but offer low returns. These lands can grow a wide range of vegetables, provided work for farmers, and food security now and for future generations. It must be painful for Councillor Harold Steves, one of the original proponents of the Agricultural Land Reserve to see the death warrant signed by this Council for Richmond farmland. It is absolutely crucial that the Province step in to prevent the carving up of these rich farming lands. In Richmond itself, the Richmond Citizens Association is running a progressive slate of people for Council this October on a platform for transparent and open city government that listens to what citizens want-and preserves farmland.

There has been pushback and outrage against Richmond’s Mcmansioning of the best farmland in Canada, and it requires a quick intervention. Without a Provincial response, other municipalities will face similar pressure for the estate privatizing of farmland. Proximity to good agricultural land is irreplaceable. Local food security, and the stewarding of Metro Vancouver’s farmland and future farmers depends upon a universal response that agricultural lands matter.

Sandy James is a seasoned city planner that previously worked at the City of Vancouver and now consults internationally on planning issues.
Sandy is also co-editor of Pricetags.ca, a blog on Canadian urban perspectives, and is the managing director of Walk Metro Vancouver. She wrote about Vancouver in the recently published book “Walking: Connecting Sustainable Transport with Health”.