Saanich council has asked staff to look into large homes on land zoned agriculture. According to Coun. Dean Murdock, the phenomenon has crept into the Blenkinsop Valley. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Saanich to study ‘mega mansions’ on farm land

District staff will study the siting of homes on agricultural lots

Saanich will join a growing list of communities around the province looking into the issue of large homes appearing on land zoned for agricultural use, most of which (but not all) lies in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The municipality is taking this step after Coun. Dean Murdock raised the issue during Monday’s council meeting.

“There are pockets where this [phenomenon] is occurring in Saanich,” he said in a later interview. “We are starting to see it in the Blenkinsop Valley, and in the rural parts of Saanich outside the Urban Containment Boundary.”

British Columbia allows non-farmers to own land in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and recent years have witnessed the emergence of ‘country living’ – residents buying up large agricultural properties near urban centres.

“Characteristically, the residential unit is large and there is only modest or no agricultural use of the land,” reads a 2011 discussion paper from the provincial government. “The result is a strong potential for destabilizing farm communities.”

According to the report, these new rural residents may have little or no interest in farming and can actively impede farm development and operations by complaining about typical farm odour, noise and dust.

“In B.C., farmers make up only 1.5 per cent of the population, and as a result farmers are a minority even in the ALR where they may be outnumbered by as much as five to one,” it reads.

For Murdock, the residential use of land zoned for agriculture deters food production, and more broadly runs counter to no fewer than 19 policies that support local food production, preservation of farmland and lands within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Staff will study the siting of homes on agricultural lots. “Homes sited deep into a lot can affect the long-term agricultural potential of the property and of neighbouring properties by limiting their use for some commodities or by making it more difficult and often more expensive for existing and future farmers to expand their operations,” the provincial discussion paper says.

Such homes also require long driveways that reduce arable areas. Other issues include the size of homes on land zoned for agriculture.

Local governments can control the siting and massing of buildings and structures, residential or otherwise, on ALR land. Richmond recently voted to limit the size of homes on ALR land. Local governments, however, cannot control uses within the ALR.

A few local governments have attempted to address residential uses in the ALR, often with great controversy, as commercial, agricultural, and environmental interests clash over so-called ‘mega-mansions.’ These controversies have been especially evident in peripheral regions of Metro Vancouver. Home to large growing populations, it also contains some of the best quality farm land in the country.

The provincial government offers some guidelines when it comes to the size of residences within the ALR, but they are not binding, and a number of municipalities that regulate farm residential footprints exceed these recommendations, according to a report from Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Murdock expressed hope that the provincial government will create some “coherence” around regulations as part of its review of the ALR. It wrapped up earlier this spring and Agriculture Minister and Saanich MLA Lana Popham will receive recommendations this summer. According to the ministry, Popham anticipates bringing forward new legislation concerning the ALR in the fall of 2018.

wolfgang.depner@saanichnews.com

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