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Richmond city council to review solutions to so-called ‘megahomes’ on farmland

The City of Richmond’s planning committee will meet on Tuesday to consider solutions to the ongoing problem of increasingly large luxury homes being built on farmland.

City councillors will be reviewing a city staff report, originally published Jan. 10, that suggests adopting one of four proposed bylaw changes that will finally put regulations on these so-called “megahomes.”

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“At one time, the biggest house you would see would be maybe 4,000 square feet, and that was considered big,” Richmond city councillor Harold Steves said. “Now it’s 20,000 [square feet], and the city staff just turned down an application for a 40,000-square-foot house with 21 bedrooms. Very few people have a family of 21 kids.

“We have to put an end to it, and I guess we’re going to start doing it here in Richmond if we can,” Steves, who is also a farmer, added.

At stake is the potential loss of some of the best farmland in B.C., which falls under the Agricultural Land Reserve. The problem is many of these homes are able to pass themselves off as farms despite not using any of their acreage for farming, avoiding taxes as a result.

“If [the property owners] can show that they’ve made $2,500 a year in farm produce – maybe renting [the work] to another farmer for a dollar – then they get farm taxes,” Steves said. “So they get a reduction in taxes, and they get to build these big houses and it simply destroys the farmland.”

Councillors argue a decision needs to be made sooner than later, as developers have been quick to realize that buying up farmland for development is significantly cheaper than city lots, creating another loophole in the midst of the real estate crisis.

“Last I heard, it was about $3-400,000 for an acre…it’s over a million dollars for a single-family lot in Richmond,” Richmond city councillor Linda McPhail said.

“The other part of that is, people may have money to buy that [farmland], but can farmers afford to pay $3-400,000 an acre for farmland? Does it make sense? And what we’re hearing from the farmers is it does not.”

The bylaw changes being proposed include limiting home sizes to roughly 5,400 square feet, as well as shrinking the maximum home plate (the area containing the main house and residences for farm workers). Homes would also be required to not exceed a distance of 50 metres from the road to the front door.

The report also suggests limits on spaces intended for farm workers. The bylaw change would allow additional rooms to be built for farm workers only, meaning estates could potentially be built to current, unregulated levels as long as homeowners can prove the space is being used for staff, rather than what Steves suspects is for illegal hotels or short-term rentals.

READ MORE: Richmond’s short-term rental ban could be tough to enforce: expert

The staff report suggests that Richmond implementing a bylaw is necessary after repeated calls for the province to implement its own regulations fell on deaf ears.

In 2013, despite repeated calls from Richmond and other Lower Mainland cities to impose more strict, province-wide regulations, the Ministry of Agriculture instead released a set of guidelines for municipalities to use in drafting their own bylaws on farmland home size.

The Richmond report suggests this was a mistake, as “guidelines are unenforceable and may be inconsistently applied.”

Richmond is hardly the first municipality to try and implement stricter regulations on farmland development: Delta, Port Coquitlam and Surrey have already passed such bylaws, despite vocal opposition from developers and the homeowners who hire them.

The City knows it will face similar opposition, but feels the time has come to make a change, if only to protect the rich farmland in danger of being lost.

“We [Richmond] are one climatic zone warmer than anywhere else in Canada, and we have by far the best soils of anywhere else in Canada,” Steves said. “And that’s the land that’s being threatened.”

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