Photo by Chung Chow
In the second of a two-part series, The Sentinel examines the housing-on-farmland issue.
Mega mansions sprouting from what once was fertile farmland has become a common site closer to the heart of Richmond in the past few years.
One of the most visible examples is the recent construction on several small farming parcels on No. 2 Road, south of Steveston Highway, which sit in plain view of a large residential neighbourhood and on a busy traffic corridor where hundreds of drivers have witnessed the gradual but unmistakable transformation during their morning and afternoon commutes.
It’s easy to understand why this is upsetting for many; there’s heightened public awareness about environmental conservation, and greater knowledge and appreciation of the value of farmland.
One perspective is that for every square foot of mansion that goes up, that’s one fewer square foot available to be farmed.
But the real issue, according to two local farming advocates, is the soaring price of farmland that results from the construction of these homes, and the negative impact that’s having on small-scale farmers.
Coun. Harold Steves said fast-rising farmland prices is the biggest threat to local farming, and something needs to be done about it.
Steves said by reducing house-size limits, non-farmers would no longer be drawn by the prospect of building an estate-sized home that’s largely sheltered from municipal tax rates by the property’s farm tax status.
While a farmer might capitalize on the fertile nature of Richmond’s land to grow vegetables, that wouldn’t be the case for a non-farmer, he argued.
“A non-farmer would build a big mansion, lease the (farmland out back) for a dollar to somebody who plants blueberries, and it’s irrelevant whether you sell the crop or whether you harvest the crop or whether you can find enough pickers as long as you’ve got your farm tax and you don’t have to do any work on your so-called farm. If you don’t allow the big houses, then you’re gonna have more of a chance (of finding somebody prepared to farm the land),” he said.
Asked how likely it would be that new farmers would be prepared to spend $1 million to buy a small parcel, Steves pointed to a local family that’s leasing 2.5 acres and generated $104,000 in revenues.
“That’s not bad and that’s what this soil can produce,” Steves said.
Steves noted that one owner said at a hearing that he only made about $10,000 on 25 acres of blueberry fields. That farmer should be growing vegetables instead, Steves said, and could make 10 times what he did.
Asked why a local farmer would grow blueberries when vegetables might be much more lucrative, Steves said: “Simply because they’re not interested in farming.”
INDUSTRY IS COMPLEX
But Jim Vercammen, a University of British Columbia professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, said markets for fruits and vegetables are very limited locally. If large-scale local farmers were to suddenly switch to growing vegetables, that would flood the market, and change the prices small-scale farmers are commanding for their produce from local buyers.
Citing broccoli and sweet corn as examples, Vercammen said in many cases it’s not profitable to produce that here.
Vercammen also said it’s “not
where you want to go” when he was asked about whether regulations should be changed to favour farmers growing fruits and vegetables for
the local market.
The way supply chains are established means getting local food into the local supply chain is difficult. But the public seems to be happy to buy bananas from abroad and export blueberries and cherries to other markets.
Asked about the controversy about big homes on farmland in Richmond, Vercammen said he appreciates both sides of the argument, and said it’s a complex issue.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the hype on both sides,” he said, adding there is no easy answer and that there are strong arguments on both sides.
NOT ABOUT BIG HOUSES
“People who truly understand this issue do not have an issue with farmers living in large houses,” said Laura Gillanders, a coordinator with FarmWatch, an organization founded in 2013 by local farmers and residents wanting to prevent the misuse of farmland.
The goal of the group is to preserve farmland, end speculative development of properties in the agricultural land reserve, and enhance farming viability.
FarmWatch has about a dozen members, mostly vegetable farmers and ALR land owners, Gillanders said.
Small-scale farmers, like Miles Smart from Cherry Lane Farm, are full-time farmers who feel they have less of a voice in the community in which they work, and so have turned to FarmWatch for help.
“He’s got an amazing farm business,” Gillanders said of Smart, who markets produce directly to a couple dozen restaurants in the Lower Mainland. He too would like to see house-size limits brought down from their current levels.
Rising farmland prices aren’t the only challenge to new farmers.
Some small-scale farmers in Richmond have tenuous year-to-year leases with landowners who happen to be investors who don’t want their properties tied down for the long term, which would make them a less attractive purchasing option, particularly for potential buyers seeking to build an estate-sized home.
That annual uncertainty makes planning and investments for infrastructure upgrades for the short- and medium-term impossible.
FarmWatch urged Richmond council to follow the assessment and recommendations in an independent report by Richard Wozny, who concluded that small farm parcels were being bought and sold as urban residential sites because buyers could build a home upwards of 10,000 square feet. This was driving up farmland prices, which were commanding prices of $750,000 and up to $1 million per acre, more than double of just a few years ago.
Wozny recommended house size limits on farm properties be brought in line with those in residential areas.
While members of the Richmond Farmland Owners Association agreed that building 20,000-square-foot mega-mansions was unnecessary, they pushed back at the idea of aligning local rules with provincial guidelines.
Multi-generational farmers, including Dale Badh, Humraj Kallu and Ben Dhiman, told The Sentinel they and their families have worked hard to keep the farming industry alive in Richmond for decades, and would like to maintain the option to build up to a 10,000-square-foot home, which their extended families could grow into.
Capping house sizes at 5,000-square-feet would hurt them, the very people who toil the local fields and do the work that nobody else wants to do, they said.
Is there a middle ground that protects small-scale farmers, without hurting multi-generational farmers who have relied on extended family to keep their businesses afloat?
Gillanders said grandfathering existing farmers, and seeking creative restrictions that would specifically address the frenzy that seems focused on farm parcels of under five acres, are worth further discussions.
“This speculation is not beneficial to vegetable farming,” she said.
She said this battle is about land in the heart of the city.
“This is not about East Richmond farmers, not about need. This is about speculative development.”
With the Oct. 20 civic election now just days away, Coun. Carol Day didn’t mince words about her perspective.
In response to the first instalment of this series, she wrote an email to The Richmond Sentinel: “This story would have you believe the REAL farmers live in palatial houses with marble floors, media rooms, private gyms and grand foyers. I say that real farmers live in modest homes with a small foot print so they can spend more time in the fields than watching their projection TVs.”
Part One referred to the lack of a public uproar when Richmond developer Milan Ilich built a 22,000-square-foot home near the foot of No. 3 Road.
Day wrote: “The Milan Ilich home is brought up as an example of a large estate home that was welcomed by locals 20 years ago and how it is so unfair that builders are no longer allowed to build 22,000-square-foot houses on an ALR lot, pathetic is all I can say. Mr. Ilich was an honourable man who generously gave back to his city over decades and one needs only to look up his donations to the Richmond Hospital to appreciate his contribution to our society. Shame on these people for trying to jump on Mr. Ilich’s coat tails.”
While Gillanders doesn’t agree with Day’s viewpoint of farmers and how they should spend their money, Gillanders noted that what’s different between today and when Ilich built his home are the economic checks and balances that existed two decades ago.
Ilich was among a small number of wealthy people who built their fortunes here in Canada and occasionally built their estates on farmland.
“It was local people who became wealthy and (who) earned their money here in the country,” she said, adding that the size of the regional economy by its nature capped how many of these wealthy people existed.
But a spike in foreign investment has created an uneven playing ground, introducing many more people of Ilich’s means to the region and in turn more people interested in building these massive homes, with small-scale farmers among the casualties.
And that’s what FarmWatch wants addressed.