New regulations proposed by Metro Vancouver would block the building of more giant estate houses that inefficiently eat into scarce farmland.
The region is asking the provincial agriculture ministry to introduce standardized rules to control the placement and size of the residential footprint of homes in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
While two cities – Delta and Richmond – have local bylaws that impose restrictions, opposition from property owners have prompted other councils such as Pitt Meadows and Surrey to shelve similar efforts.
If the city-by-city patchwork of rules continues, Metro officials say, people wanting to build manor homes on farmland will flock to cities without bylaws, or look further east in the Fraser Valley Regional District.
A staff report warns of growing pressure to develop ALR land by property owners who want large houses and yards who may have little or no interest in actually farming the land.
A house plunked in the middle of a farm parcel with a long driveway and expansive yard “makes farming more difficult if not impossible,” the report says.
Allowing such houses on agricultural land may also attract non-farmers.
Once a large estate house is erected, the property becomes prohibitively expensive for many actual farmers.
The new estate home owners may also complain about neighbouring farm smells and sounds, the report suggests, hampering farmers on adjacent plots.
The province previously signaled its willingness to consider regulations, circulating its own discussion paper on potential options.
The limits proposed by Metro Vancouver would cap an ALR farm’s residential footprint at 5,000 square metres for properties eight hectares or more or 2,000 square metres for smaller parcels.
That footprint would have to start no further than 60 metres from the road or property line, ensuring residential uses are close to the edge of the property and can’t sprawl far into it.
The main farm house, any secondary house and any other residential uses – from sheds and workshops to tennis courts and pools – would have to be within the footprint.
House sizes would be capped at 500 square metres for the main house on parcels of at least eight hectares (350 square metres for smaller properties) and 250 square metres for an additional house for farm staff (200 square metres for smaller parcels.)
The house size limits are somewhat looser than Delta’s but Metro staff argue individual cities would still be free to pass more restrictive bylaws if they choose.
Richmond only requires a house on agricultural land be within 50 metres of the road or property line. It has no house size or footprint limits specific to farmland.
According to the Metro report, building a very large house worth $2.25 million on a five-acre farm more than triples the property’s average cost per acre from $175,000 to $550,000.
Even on a 20-acre parcel, the average value nearly doubles to $212,500 per acre compared to if a small house was built instead.
“This drives up the price of farmland and makes farmland less affordable for farmers and less likely to be farmed,” the report warns.
The current rules in most of the region let buyers who want an estate lifestyle build their dream home on cheaper ALR land without having to pay the higher price to get the equivalent mansion on urban residential-zoned land.
They also get an investment with a potential future windfall if the land can someday be removed from the ALR and subdivided.
Owners who do grow something may even qualify for the lower farm property tax rate, even if they use just a tiny fraction of the land’s potential.
The proliferation of farm estate houses has also been flagged by the region as a concern for Metro’s future food security.