Hard to believe, but the story of BC’s provincially-designated Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) being eaten up for real estate development profits is not a new story.

Today, the councillors in the City of Richmond (with the exception of Mayor Brodie, Councillor Steves and Councillor Day) are expected to continue the dizzying trend of getting multi-million dollar land lifts by creating private, gated estates out of the richest farmland in Canada. In doing so, this Council — bullish on doing the right thing for developers seeking profits — are betraying the ALR, which was set up in the 1970’s to guarantee future food security, not to mention farmers’ access to high quality, arable lands.

The Globe and Mail’s Kathy Tomlinson covered this story in November 2016, and updated it last year. City councils elsewhere in Metro Vancouver have been allowing the carving up of farmland for real estate profit, and turning a blind eye to the practice.

Dozens of huge new mansions – some sitting empty – are changing the landscape of prime farmland in suburban Vancouver. Some are among the 122 agricultural properties in the area that changed hands for more than $2-million – apiece – between August, 2015, and last July.

These farms sold for a total of $449-million, while the province pegs their taxable value at just over one-tenth of that: $52-million. That is because, under provincial law, the value of farmland is judged by how good the soil is, not what an investor will pay for it.”

Ms. Tomlinson discovered that, after a data review, “speculators and investors, not farmers, were behind at least 73 – almost 60 per cent – of the purchases. The investigation also shows that those buyers enjoy huge tax breaks that are intended to support farming but, in effect, encourage speculation instead.

“British Columbia law stipulates that agricultural properties with more than two acres can keep their farm status – and all their tax breaks – as long as they sell just $2,500 worth of farm products a year. That can include Christmas trees or hay to the neighbours. A recent report shows that a quarter of farms in suburban Vancouver meet only those minimum requirements.”

Metro Vancouver estimates that half of the protected farmland is not being used for farming at all. Of the 122 properties examined by the Globe and Mail, there are significant tax discrepancies. “Taxing just these 122 properties at full residential rates, based on their sales prices, would put roughly another $2-million in municipal coffers each year. Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.”

While the City of Richmond did actually reject one such application to build a 41,000 square foot house on farmland, it was the first time the city refused such a permit. You can read some troubling case examples of what has been approved on ALR land.

The City of Richmond, which has a background as a farming community, is allowing mansions on farmlands over one half-acre, and is considering allowing an additional dwelling of over 3,000 square feet on the same property too.

As the former Agricultural Land Commission chair stated, he would rather see the province “throw cold water on speculative investment altogether, by simply banning development on farmable land, unless it’s required for public use. It needs serious updating.

“Somebody in government has got to stand up and say, ‘When you buy farmland, that is what you are buying.'”