Agriculture Minister Lana Popham visits a Fraser Valley cranberry farm during a provincial tour to begin her new job in the NDP government, October 2017. (B.C. government)

B.C. VIEWS: When farmland protection doesn’t protect farmers

Secondary residences aren’t mansions, families tell Lana Popham

The NDP government’s overhaul of the Agricultural Land Commission is causing grief, with new restrictions on secondary homes, for B.C. families who are trying to keep family farms going.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham’s drive to protect farmland is based on a couple of long-standing NDP assumptions. One is that there is massive property speculation, with buyers applying to have farmland released from the Agricultural Land Reserve to cash in on its increased value. Actual statistics from the commission didn’t show that, but Popham pushed through legislation that prevents property owners from applying directly for exclusion by declaring that owners are not “persons.”

The second assumption is that additional residences are a form of creeping development that has to be reined in. This was accomplished with legislation that passed last November and took effect in February, giving the commission the final say on secondary residences.

These changes are filtering through to local governments, and there have been some alarming results. The Langley Advance Times reported on one, where retirees Cathy and Brian Fichter planned to move their daughter, her husband and six children to an extended family farm as they deal with Brian’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

The family’s purchase took effect Feb. 26, four days after the new rules took effect. Previously, secondary residences could be justified by the extra work needed to raise livestock. But now local governments have to approve it, and then the commission can overrule them. As of last week the Fichters were still waiting for a final decision.

Dave Strachan of Nakusp has a similar situation. His wife has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and his daughter and her husband decided to move with them to a small farm to help out. He describes the land as marginal for farm production, as is much of the ALR outside the key food production regions of the Lower Mainland, Okanagan and Southern Vancouver Island.

Both families went to substantial effort and expense of buying modular homes and arranging servicing to meet the temporary residence rules of the ALR. They didn’t know the rules were changing, and it’s likely their local governments didn’t either. They await their fate under the new centralized commission that runs the whole province from Burnaby.

When this change was debated last November, Popham acknowledged that the commission would have a veto.

“We are transferring that approval process to the Agricultural Land Commission because we feel that they are better suited to analyze whether or not an additional dwelling would be required for agricultural activities,” she said.

It would be easy to say that the above examples are merely “hobby farms,” a few acres with some horses and goats. What else could be done with a remote five-acre parcel, since there is no chance the new regime will allow it to be removed?

For larger farms, the residence restriction creates problems even if a second house is allowed.

“For instance, if you’re a dairy farm in my area of east Delta, and you have two or three kids who say, ‘I want to continue farming,’ they say, ‘Well, you can’t live on this farm,” B.C. Liberal agriculture critic Ian Paton told the legislature. “We’ve only got one extra house. You’re going to have to rent a house up in North Delta or Richmond or something.”

Agriculture ministry staff tell me they are looking at these kinds of cases and considering changes. That’s good.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media.

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