Friday, January 18, 2013

Large, low-tax, luxury lots in the Township?

When reading over the agenda and minutes of Township of Langley Council meetings, there are always subdivision applications within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Some subdivision applications are called a “homesite severance” and others are just subdivisions.

Before the ALR was setup in the 1970’s, many farmers would subdivide their land and sell off the farmland part, while keeping their primary residence in order to produce a retirement fund. While this was common, it also resulted in fragmented farmland. When the ALR was finally created, a formal policy was adopted by the Agricultural Land Commission call a "homesite severance” which allowed for this sort of subdivision to still take place as long as the owner of the property lived on the site since at least December 21, 1972. This policy was created to make sure that farmers at the time didn’t face undue hardship from an evaporated “retirement fund.” The ALC still has the final say on a “homesite severance” application and can deny an application if the commission believes that the effect on farmland is too negative. The policy does not apply to people who purchased and starting living within the ALR after 1972 as it was thought that these people should be fully aware of the restrictions place on land within the ALR. I still see “homesite severance” applications appear on Township Council agendas, but as time goes on, there will be fewer applications.

Land use plan for rural Langley. Click image to enlarge.

The second kind of subdivision application that I see a lot of in the Township is within the Small Farms/Country Estates zone. This zone allows for 4-acre lots and, as I’ve posted about in the past, even makes the ALC uneasy as that size of lot makes it next to impossible for economically viable farming. This zone takes up a pretty big chunk of land within rural Langley and its ALR.

I was in a friend’s car the other day and was being driven through a part of the Township that was in the Small Farms/Country Estates zone. What I saw was lot after lot of what some call "McMansions". The tricky thing about these large-format houses on large lots in the Township is that many of them are within the ALR which means that their property has a lower market value than similar property outside of the ALR. This also means lower property tax than similar property outside of the ALR. Also if the owners of these larger-format houses operate “hobby farms” on their properties, they may quality for a massive property tax break as farm land in BC is assessed at a fraction of its market value. A 4-acre hobby farm only needs to produce $2,500 per year in farm revenue and can include such farm products as Christmas Trees and forage (grass).

While I support making both large and small-scale farming viable and support the tax breaks for farmer, I have to wonder if some of these larger-format house owners are gaming our farming system. I know that in Delta, they put in bylaws to prevent the further development of "McMansions" in their community. I have to wonder if parts of rural Langley are becoming estates for the rich looking for a tax break or are becoming viable small-scale farms that contribute to the sustainability of our region.

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