Saanich councillors call to stop monster homes being built on farmland

Lower Mainland is not the only area struggling with oversized mega-mansions on agricultural land reserve

Saanich on Vancouver Island wants to see what it can do to restrict monster houses from being built on agricultural land.

Councillors have unanimously endorsed a proposal from Coun. Dean Murdock to have staff review agricultural zones with regard to house size and location, and report back on options.

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“At the moment, with the exception of setbacks from your neighbour’s property and whatever you would need as a setback from your septic field or septic tank, there aren’t really any restrictions on how big a house could be built,” Murdock said.

“So we’re seeing these large farm properties with some very large homes going on them, and this is a way we could maybe bring some rules around how big those homes could be.”

The idea would be for Saanich staff to do “an environmental scan and see what other communities are doing in response to this,” Murdock said.

“They would come back with some options for council to consider that would likely result in us amending the agriculture zones to put restrictions on the maximum house size.”

The goal is to prevent “valuable, arable, food-producing land” from being eaten up by housing, he said. “Once you pave it and put a house on it, it’s a lot harder to put it back into food production in the future.”

Monster houses on Agricultural Land Reserve properties receive the benefit of agricultural tax rates, but are not actually working farms, Murdock said.

“It’s in effect a large estate. It was protected for the purpose of those lands going for food production and this is having a longer-term effect, where those houses are not being farmed,” he said.

“Farm land is intended for farming and not for large mansions.”

Former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard, outgoing chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission, has cited Metro Vancouver monster houses being built on the Agricultural Land Reserve as a significant issue facing the province.

While not yet a particular problem on Vancouver Island, in the Interior or the North, in Metro Vancouver it is a huge problem in areas such as Richmond, Leonard said in an interview.

“You’re having someone buy ALR land in Richmond, building a 10,000-square-foot mansion plus tennis court, pool and outbuildings and only producing $10,000 in revenue and then paying next to nothing in property taxes.

“So the ALR land is essentially lost,” Leonard said.

While the monster-house problem has touched the Island, it’s not a problem “in the world beyond Hope,” he said.

The Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1973 to protect 4.7 million hectares of farmland, because only five per cent of B.C.’s land area is considered suitable for agriculture. At that time, 6,000 hectares of farmland was being lost to development each year. That pace has slowed to 600 hectares a year.

Murdock, who has announced he will not seek re-election in October, hopes Saanich staff will report back before the end of this term.

“If I’m not there to vote on it when it comes around, I’ll be watching the webcast at home and rooting for council to do the right thing.”

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