A large farmhouse on agricultural land in Richmond.

Metro backtracks on push to limit farm house size

Directors want province to set rules on residential area, positioning

Metro Vancouver has watered down its latest attempt to limit the construction of giant farmhouses that inefficiently eat up crop-growing land.

The regional district board had been poised to ask the province to outlaw huge mansions in the Agricultural Land Reserve, limit the size of the surrounding residential use footprint and require it be placed close to the access road – so yards don’t sprawl deep into the property and make it hard to farm.

But after protests Friday from farmers that a cap on farm house size would be unfair to large South Asian farm families, the board voted to abandon that part of the resolution.

“It shows a lack of cultural sensitivity with regards to how farming works and who farms,” Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman told directors, opposing any new regulations. “This is just going to be a big cow pie we’re all going to step into here.”

The proposed size limit, recommended by Metro’s regional planning committee, would have capped the main house at 500 square metres (5,300 square feet) on farms eight hectares or larger and 350 square metres (3,800 square feet) for smaller farms, while allowing a second farm house of 200 to 250 square metres.

The region will instead ask Victoria to set a maximum residential footprint of 5,000 square metres (2,000 for smaller farms) and require that residential use area extend no deeper than 60 metres from an access road.

The compromise, brokered by Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner, would leave each city council to set its own farm house size limit, if it wants one.

Hepner had said Surrey council would oppose the blanket house size limit – preferring to exercise its own discretion – and Vancouver directors said they saw no regional interest justifying a specific size limit.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said the proposed residential footprint regulation will prevent farmland buyers from using too much of a property for estate homes and yards, which sometimes include swimming pools, tennis courts and outbuildings.

He noted Metro had last year decided to stand firm on the farm house issue and said he was surprised it had suddenly become controversial.

Whether the province does anything remains to be seen.

Agriculture Minister Don McRae last fall decided against imposing rules on residential uses, and instead offered a standardized bylaw cities can use if they wish.

It recommends a 2,000 square metre residential footprint limit and suggested a 500 square meter limit for house size.

Metro had hoped the government would set binding provincial rules, so cities don’t have to enact local bylaws to try to regulate the problem.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said expecting cities to voluntarily impose bylaws won’t work, because developers and realtors are adept at lobbying councils and persuading them not to adopt such reforms.

He singled out Dale Badh, a farmer and realtor who spoke out at the Metro meeting, as one of the key players who has worked to thwart tougher bylaws before.

Badh, who owns a nine-acre blueberry farm in Delta and lives in Richmond, said he was “very offended” by Steves’ remark and said the farm house size issue has been blown out of proportion.

“It’s like trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer,” Badh said.

“The province should ignore this request. What right does Metro Vancouver have to tell somebody in the Kootenay or the Okanagan how to manage their farm?”

Nav Sekhon, who has a farm in Surrey, said the ability to have an extended family under one roof in a large farm house is critical to passing on farming skills to new generations.

Several Metro directors said they remain concerned about property buyers using ALR farmland to build giant estate houses with sprawling grounds.

“People are building 17,000 sqare foot houses,” North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto said. “I believe if they want them that big they should buy them in residential areas. They should not be buying farmland to do that.”

Directors from Langley and Pitt Meadows opposed the resolution, saying the requirement on placement of the residential footprint is too rigid, and doesn’t allow a house to be positioned on a different spot on the property that might not be suitable for growing anyway.

They also said it would be wrong to impose the restrictions on farmers across B.C.

Delta has the most restrictive bylaw on residential farm use – tougher than Metro had contemplated.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said it’s working well, although some huge homes are still being built that were approved under the old system.