May 16, 2018

Richmond City Council Sells Out, Opens Barn Door for Developers on Agricultural Land Reserve

If you attended Monday night’s City of Richmond council meeting, or watched their live stream, you were witness to one of the biggest land-use travesties of this generation.
Council didn’t just approve residential development on Class 1 farmland, the best in Richmond (and possibly in Canada). The majority voted in favour of mansions up to 10,764 square feet, plus additional dwellings for farm workers up to 3,229 square feet.
That’s almost 14,000 square feet of total living space, effectively available for development by a single person or family. Many are owned by offshore interests.
The City of Richmond Council has effectively affirmed developer interests in place of the rights of future generations of Metro Vancouver residents to have access to fresh, local food, or food security. Half of the farms in the City of Richmond are gone, and 61 applications are fervently awaiting approval, now beholden to development and the almighty buck.
The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is not some land gift for the City of Richmond to give away. It was carefully established in 1972 to prioritize the protection of arable land for agricultural uses, and to save this farmland for future generations in British Columbia.
Of course, land that is deemed agricultural has a lower property value than residential, and that’s where developers and speculators, many offshore and in numbered companies, have exploited it. Find a piece of land in the ALR over one half an acre, buy it at agricultural land prices (in the process avoiding the foreign buyer’s tax, which doesn’t apply to agricultural land), build a huge mansion, and sell it at a multi-million dollar lift. Owners may decide to grow some berries or raise a horse, and thus be taxed at agricultural (not residential) rates.
It’s the perfect scam. And that land will never be available for a future farmer to buy. 
This land is good enough to raise a variety of vegetables, not the low maintenance berry crops that proliferate today. You can’t blame the speculators hammering Richmond council for their piece of the supernormal property lift either.
Think of it. Richmond was called the “garden city”, in part because of the access to these amazing farming soils. But that is no more.
In their short-sighted decision, the City of Richmond has set a precedent in declaring open season on Agricultural Land Reserve lands throughout British Columbia. The care and thought taken in ensuring food security for generations, undertaken by the province over 45 years ago, has been lost, and agricultural land in other municipalities will be seen as fair game for development.
There are now questions in formal channels as to which developers provided campaign funding to the Richmond City Council, and whether those funds have influenced the stewardship of agricultural land.
Last year Richmond lost fifty farms to gated mansion estates, never to return to agriculture. You can only marvel at the lack of foresight.

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  1. This is not as simple an issue as it seems. First, this is not new. For decades people have been building large houses under ALR rules that have been in place since the beginning. A second building for farm workers has also been allowed under those rules. BUT…(and here I like PeeWee Herman’s saying, “Everybody’s got a big but.”) what has changed is the pressure for people to do it, and for that we can thank both the Liberal and NDP governments for failing to anticipate that restricting the purchase of land of one type would stimulate demand for another.
    Full disclosure: ten years ago my architectural firm was hired to design a large house on 25 acres of ALR land. Our client was very wealthy and wanted to build a family vacation compound. Numerous properties in the neighbourhood had gone the same way; farming was far from lucrative and most of the local farmers had had second (or really first) jobs for years as welders and truck drivers and secretaries to make ends meet. None that I met had kids who were interested in taking over the farm so selling the farm to retire (or to move on) was just an inevitability, and clients like ours paid more.
    The difference between our client and many others is that our client said this: “We don’t want to just squat on agricultural land; we want to put it to best use. You figure out what that should be and if it makes sense, we’ll do it.” So we hired agrologists and agronomists and vineyard people and well drillers and in the end built vineyards and orchards and a winery and distillery. At first our client was described in the local press as a “Gucci farmer” by the very farmers who could not make a go of their own land without side jobs. Eventually, though, when the distillery started winning international competitions, “Gucci farm” became “agritourist destination” and finally “the new face of farming” to people in that area. 10 agribusiness jobs were created. BUT…it still isn’t very profitable given the cost of equipment and labour and supplies, and no matter how good the soil may be, there’s only a future in it as long as wealthy individuals like our clients have personal reasons to do it. Our client, we think, just always wanted to be a gentleman farmer.
    Which brings me back to the rich people buying farms in Richmond. How different are they? Is building big houses the real problem? Or is it that there are too few incentives for people to put the land around the big houses to best agricultural use?

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