CityCaucus Redux: The Castles of No. 6 Road, urban sprawl & the ALR

Post by Mike Klassen in

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A Flickr slideshow of houses on Richmond's No. 6 Road – why so big?

We decided to run the following CityCaucus Redux post from November 2009 because of recent stories in the news about ALR land, and specifically the issue of "Mega Homes" being built on farmland in the Fraser Valley. See recent reports by 24 Hours & the Vancouver Sun on the Pitt Meadows district struggling with large home development on farm properties. Also, we're still seeing a big debate over the future of Southlands in Tsawwassen. The best example I've seen of this problem is on No. 6 Road in Richmond (see my photos above)...

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With the possible exception of sprawl developers and the Fraser Institute, few in our province would like to axe the Agricultural Land Reserve, or ALR. There is constant pressure to remove land from the ALR, as in the case of pro-development councils like one in the District of Maple Ridge. But no elected official in a senior level of government today would seriously entertain the idea of shrinking or disbanding the ALR without expecting a backlash.

While most British Columbians are happy that these boundaries surrounding arable and non-developed land exist, it hasn't prevented abuse of the spirit of the ALR. Jeff Nagel, the tireless reporter from the Black Press who covers land use issues, tells us about Metro Vancouver's recent request sent over to the Province on development on ALR properties.

Metro is asking the BC government to give the Agricultural Land Commission, who manages the ALR, the authority to rule on the appropriate form of residential housing on ALR properties. Increasingly, the smaller homes inhabited by farm families are giving way to massive country estates, with wide paved areas for parking. Farming is becoming more of an afterthought for these land owners, say critics from the Metro Vancouver board.

These massive homes are qualifying for lower property taxes because they are on farm land, which many consider unfair.

Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner, vice-chair of Metro's agriculture committee, says the ALC should consider that homes should be the "size that's reasonable within today's standards of farming." Metro isn't trying to define how big a farm house and its yard and parking lot can be, but hopes Victoria will charge the ALC with resolving the thorny issue.

One place the ALC can observe is the row of castles being built upon farm land along Richmond's No. 6 Road. The City of Richond, BC, sits on the floodplain of the Fraser River, and contains some of the province's best farm land. Half of the area within Richmond's boundaries is designated ALR, and No. 6 Road is very clearly smack in the middle of farming territory.

As our slideshow of images from No. 6 Road indicates, big changes are underway for this country road that don't have a lot to do with producing food or raising livestock. Richmond city council approved the Silvercity Riverport cinema and mall in the middle of nowhere several years back, right at the end of the 2-lane road bounded by 15 ft. wide ditches.

To call this road hazardous would be an understatement. No. 6 Road is also the quickest route to the city's landfill, making it the choice for dump trucks throughout the day. I spotted at least one roadside memorial erected on the route during a recent visit.

Not everyone thinks that "city folk" like the members of Metro Vancouver's board should be poking their nose into this matter. Frank Bucholtz, editor of the Langley Times newspaper, regards this a question of citizens' rights.

The debate over mega-houses has a strong Langley connection. Many very large homes are being built on farmland here. In some cases, they are built because of an extended family living in the house. In virtually all these cases, the land is being farmed — in some cases, more extensively than it has for years.

In other cases, people wanting “country estates” buy farms, build giant homes and either knock down the existing home or rent it out to a caretaker.

In a free country, government should be reluctant to interfere with that decision. The provincial government has had an Agricultural Land Reserve in place since 1972. It prevents subdivision of farmland into small lots, and its main purpose is to preserve land so it can be farmed. If there is a good economic reason to farm, land will be used for that purpose.

If Metro does not like large homes being built on farmland, there are ways to deal with that trend. One of the most effective would be to encourage local councils to restrict the size of homes built on agriculturally-zoned lands, something they have the power to do.

Bucholtz says that there are many contradictions in Metro's viewpoint, citing a bias toward land used for winemaking – which only a tiny part of the ALR is used for in the Fraser Valley – while discriminating against tax breaks for horse boarding operations.

The "economic" argument for the ALR, which we've highlighted in Bucholtz' statement, is commonly put forward by those who favour developing the land. Maple Ridge's council are using the economic argument to defend the idea of removing land from the ALR in their district. The Albion Lands, according to this local report, are being considered by the council for developing a new shopping mall on farmland.

The ALR is criticized by others who argue for the freedom to do whatever you want with private property, but we know that cities are a weave of zoning and rules for development and so is the country. These people even question the merits of growing food locally, and like the Fraser Institute, blame the ALR for expensive real estate in Metro Vancouver. The truth is that high costs are a result of the lack of inventory, not lack of land to put it on. Cities in the region must only make more efficient use of land to drive down the expense.

Meanwhile, we wonder what the goals of the City of Richmond are by continuing to allow massive developments on farm land, and what their long term objective was by permitting a mall in the middle of nowhere. At least some folks in Metro Vancouver are asking for help to deal with this kind of reckless and unsustainable growth.

Cranbrook referendum update

A quick follow-up to a story we reported on a few weeks back regarding the City of Cranbrook holding a referendum on whether to expand their city boundaries to enable a sprawl development. We're happy to report that the voters defeated the "Yes" side, or pro-development group by a very slim 35 votes!

The Yes side spent four times as much as the Whoa No! side, but 2,616 people voted No and 2,581 people voted Yes, with a difference of 35 votes in favour of No. The voter turnout for the referendum was 35%, compared to 30% during last year's civic election.

The Cranbrook Daily Townsman newspaper provides good coverage of the referendum aftermath. There is clearly a lot of bitterness left by the community divide, and it's not clear what the developer's plans are after the defeat. Even the mayor and council sound like it has been a difficult battle for their community. It's unclear how this will affect development in the region, but it's hoped that it will lead to a debate on smarter growth among BC's small communities.

- post by Mike. Follow @MikeKlassen on Twitter.

3 Comments

Ironically Richmond has the second best by-law in the Metro Vancouver region. Delta has the best. The Delta bylaw restricts residences to a maximum of 60 meters back from the frontage road and 5,000 sq. ft. maximum house size. Richmond restricts residences to the first 50 meters, with no restrictions on house size. The rest of Metro municipalities have no restrictions.

While it had been assumed that all residential uses had to be constructed in the front 50 meters, some residents started building garages, swimming pools and tennis courts beyond the 50 meters. Richmond Council tried to close the "loophole" with an amendment to the by-law but it was voted down 7 to 2 when council was inundated with opponents, including real estate salesmen, who charged Richmond Council with everything from confiscating private property to racism. The same scenario has played out in every other community that has tried to bring in a by-law to save farmland from mega-houses.

Thanks for the update, councillor. I should point out that the property along No. 6 Road is particularly challenging for farming because of the issues around water and drainage. Blueberries and I believe cranberries take there successfully, but I'm not sure what else. You can't force land owners to farm of course. It's a big dilemma for the region.

Ironic that Mr.Steeves mentions By-laws. Richmond is possibly the most micro-governed municipality in the region. Many complex and over bearing by-laws are being forced onto Richmond residents. The tree protection By-law is a prime example of this over governance. The whole program essentially had to be re-staffed after operating for a while with unqualified staff. How much has the taxpayer paid and actually how many trees have been saved? The cost per tree is staggering. Any builder can get an report to condemn any tree, can have it removed only needing to replace it. This law was brought in as a response to a builder cutting down a heritage tree 1 block from my house. This tree protection by-law adds approx $5000.00 to every new house in this region. Once the costs of permits, surveyors, arborists, landscape architects and tree service companies are added up.

In short this by-law has only increased the bureaucracy and done little other then create red tape and employ a few more civil servants. Not every Richmond resident is happy with most of the red tape being spewed out of Granville and #3 rd.

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