It’s been a grumpy week. Despite the fact that megahouses are taking up the most arable lands in Canada in Richmond, the City Council there decided that this land was just fine for houses that are 10,764 square feet if you have half an acre of farmland to plop it on.
Imagine-if you live in Richmond or want to hold property there, you can simply buy land in the Agricultural Land Reserve, not pay the foreign buyer’s tax of 15 per cent, and (bonus!) be classified as agricultural land for tax purposes if you are able to raise farm product. In Southlands in Vancouver, mares often had their foals on large properties specifically so that the mansion owners could qualify for the hefty property tax reduction. And here’s another interesting fact-houses that are 11,000 square feet are classified as “mansions” in the United States. The Canadian country cousins in Richmond usurping the best farmland in the country are a mere 35 square feet below that size.
As Alan Campbell of the Richmond News reported at the end of the public hearing on the mega farmland mansion matter, Councillor Harold Steves (his family started Steveston, developed the first seed company on the coast, and still own and operate their century old farm) walked out of the meeting. This was the first time Councillor Steves has left in frustration but since the majority of Council sacrificed the farmland that predicated the existence of Richmond in the first place, it seemed a pretty logical thing to do. In fifty years we will look back on the huge mansions built on postage stamp acreages and remember the elected people who gave up on this opportunity for creative sustainability, the Agricultural Land Reserve, and our right to easy access to farms and food. It’s a sad and important moment-but if you have half an acre of farmland, go build your really big house. Future generations will remember this decision.
Councillor Steves later talked about what was happening with these “farmland” properties. “I gave an example of a recreational property with a 12,000-square-foot house, 24-seat theatre, possible swimming pool, tennis court, cabana, and driving range, taking up the entire property. That will likely be the norm,” he said.
“I told council that the increase in the recreational housing threat to farmland is due to the lack of foreign buyers’ tax, low farm taxes, reduced education taxes and ease of exemption from property transfer tax by occupying the premises in some way for a year.”
“This permits about 1,000 parcels of farmland that have not had new houses built yet, to eventually become recreational properties, with tenant farmers on the remaining land…if there happens to be any.”
So why did Richmond Council not do the right thing? Look at their constituency-farmers, the stewards of the land will not be able to afford property that is squandered into mansion properties. They will be tenant farmers, not owners. Other people who own that farmland (or would like to) argued their right to take that economic lift and house their families in something over five times the size of an adequate Vancouver house.
Trying to be conciliatory, Richmond Mayor Brodie stated “There are reasons why some people in the farming community want bigger houses….There are many houses in the 18,000-square-feet range and higher and there are people who would like the house sizes to go even larger…We had to come up with a reasonable maximum that will allow people (farmers) to achieve their goals . The Mayor also “admitted there is a “third category” out there who “want majestic estates.”
In 1976 Mary Rawson wrote Ill Fares the Land which set up the idea of an Agricultural Land Conservancy. Harold Steves was one of the original proponents of the strategy. And that land, precious to future sustainability will now be further fractured. You’d think in forty years we’d be better stewards of this precious resource. We and our elected officials are not.