B.C. municipalities wrestle with ‘mega-mansions’ on farmland

SUMMERLAND, B.C. — The British Columbia government says there is a ready-made solution for municipalities in the province’s Lower Mainland that are wrestling with how to control development on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“We have a Minister’s Bylaw Standard. It gives local governments a ready-to-use model that restricts building large residential homes in the centre of ALR lots,” Agricultural Minister Norm Letnick said.

“It ensures that the majority of land is preserved for agricultural use.”

He said local governments that want to restrict the large homes that have been causing controversy can pass a bylaw from the standards provided.

Many municipalities already use the bylaw templates and have added bylaws of their own in some cases, he said.

The bylaw standards are designed to allow municipalities throughout the province the flexibility to deal with issues in different ways.

He said he hopes a recent initiative by Richmond council to prepare a report on the issue will prompt the municipality to apply the Minister’s Bylaw Standard or the portions it deems appropriate to deal with the “mega-mansions” issue.

Letnick said province-wide zoning rules, which is what Richmond council is asking for, are the responsibility of local governments.

The council should first approach the Union of B.C. Municipalities to see if other municipalities agree, he added.

He said what Richmond sees as a solution may not fly in other areas.

The mega-mansion issue has arisen mainly in the densely populated region south of Vancouver but has also appeared in other areas.

The most recent situation arose when it was brought to light that massive residences were being built on land protected under the ALR, even though owners had no intentions of farming it.

The problem was particularly controversial in Richmond. The municipal council said it had trouble finding enough support for a bylaw and asked the province to step in.

Richmond councillor Carol Day said she is not happy with the province’s refusal to take action.

“These megahouses are ridiculously big, and Richmond takes the cake,” she said.

“It’s not just a Richmond problem, it’s everywhere. So the province needs to be stepping up on this.”

Some municipalities, such as Delta, Port Coquitlam and Surrey, have passed bylaws to restrict the size of buildings, but Day said that leads to a patchwork quilt of zoning regulations that vary from region to region.

However, she said Richmond is now preparing a report that explores limiting building size and location on ALR land, which is expected in January.

She said 20,000 sq. foot houses are being built on ALR land in Richmond, and council has turned down houses of 41,000 sq. feet.

Speculation is that the developers are planning hotels. Most investors are from China, she said.

Meanwhile, houses are restricted to 5,500 sq. feet in nearby Delta.

A report issued by Metro Vancouver, which represents 21 municipalities and one First Nations government, said property taxes on ALR land vary from municipality to municipality, but there are significant tax breaks for land in the reserve.

Letnick said the B.C. government has increased the Agricultural Land Commission budget, which oversees the ALR, in his four years as agriculture minister to $4.5 million from $1.9 million.

The current government has added 32,000 net new acres to the ALR since it took power in 2001, he added.

He said the ministry also wants to increase farm production by 225,000 acres by 2020.

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