Doing business in the ALR

The District of Kent is taking aim at businesses on agricultural land.

The District of Kent is taking aim at businesses on agricultural land.

For the last two years, the District has been taking a hard look at businesses that are in the wrong-zoned land and coming up with solutions to bring them into compliance. They are slowly whittling down the list of noncompliant businesses. At a Sept. 14 public hearing, four more businesses on the list got one step closer to compliance.

The text amendment to the District of Kent zoning bylaw brought forward for the public hearing will expand permitted use of the land to bring four businesses into compliance.

The applicants include Benno and Susan Spaeti on Else Road, Auke Feenstra on Fir Road, Mark and Monica Baboth on Pioneer Ave. and Gordon and Charlotte Weiss on Dogwood Road . Coun. Spaeti excused herself from the Council Chambers at the start of the public hearing due to the conflict of interest.

According to a staff report to Council at an Aug. 17 regular Council meeting from Darcey Kohuch, director of development services, the properties owned by the applicants are among a group of “historic non-compliant businesses within the District that Council authorized staff to address as part of the Compliance Program.”

Since enacting the compliance program in 2013, property owners have been contacted by staff and provided options for bringing their businesses into compliance, according to Kohuch’s report. Each of the four property owners agreed to participate in a joint application to save on costs.

In a phone interview prior to the public hearing, Mayor John Van Laerhoven explained that bringing businesses into compliance is a priority for Council because they want to make it fair for all business and protect the agricultural sector in the District.

“We’re not encouraging new non-ag. businesses on farmland,” said Van Laerhoven. “If we’re going to continue to allow businesses to spring up all over the area, that’s going to compromise agriculture.”

The other issue is taxation. Van Laerhoven says with industrial and commercial properties taxed differently than agricultural land, the space should be used accordingly. By enforcing the zoning, “it levels the playing field for everybody involved.”

When asked about the argument that the land was not being actively farmed anyway, Van Laerhoven said, “Then the community allows people to basically create zones wherever they want to.”

Van Laerhoven says Council and staff have worked hard to provide opportunities for businesses to legally operate without having to go through the route of enforcement. There were dozens of businesses operating illegally on agricultural land. Now, since the compliance program was brought in, it’s down to a handful.

During the public hearing, several residents spoke up. One stream of questions centered around the change remaining with the property regardless of the owner. These operations are longstanding businesses, said Van Laerhoven, and it’s “not going to change the character of the town” by disallowing future business if or when the current owners leave.

But a neighbour to one of the businesses argued that he lives in a rural area and wants the property bordering his to convert back to a rural use if or when the current business moves on.

“I would prefer there wasn’t a commercial business behind me,” said Cameron Clark. “I don’t want to know that in perpetuity now there can be businesses running on agricultural rural land forever.”

Dave Hastie, a long-time business owner who operated on agricultural land, said the culture for business has changed dramatically in Agassiz. He said when he ran his business, he was welcomed with open arms by Council of the day. Now, he commented, “All of a sudden, these businesses no longer have a choice. Their backs are against a wall.”

But Kohuch says they have worked carefully and cautiously to address business owner’s concerns while at the same time working to make them legal.

“We didn’t come in and say we’re going to shut everybody down,” said Kohuch in a phone interview. “The idea is to find solutions within the legal framework that we work with.”

Business on agricultural land is a longstanding issue, and one that has endless opinions. In a letter to the editor published Aug. 20 by Martin Sparkes, he wrote that after operating a business with no issues, in 2013, he was faced with a long list of requirements that were expensive and onerous. Sparkes stated that he moved his business to Chilliwack because of the financial risk of staying in Agassiz.

But according to District staff, Sparkes’ application could not be approved in 2013 because his property is zoned for agricultural rather than commercial use. According to Wallace Mah, District CAO, staff tried to work with Sparkes to find solutions that would allow him to legally operate his business, including a new type of zoning to permit both residential and commercial uses. However, Sparkes did not avail himself to that opportunity or the more recent home occupation zoning amendment opportunity which included sharing the costs of application fees with the four neighbouring businesses. Instead he chose to move his office portion to Chilliwack and continue operating the remainder of his business illegally and without a business license in Agassiz.