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Richmond conflicted over farm housing

By Ronda Payne

There isn’t much the two groups squaring off about housing on farmland in Richmond can agree to, but one common point is that the issue has caused division between the community’s residents. Laura Gillanders, a co-co-ordinator with Richmond Farmwatch believes the municipality should enforce house size restrictions that are, in her words, similar to the suggestions of the Ministry of Agriculture from 2011.

“Richmond has put a limit, but it is double what the Ministry of Agriculture has suggested a house should be on farmland,” she notes.

According to Gillanders, Farmwatch members saw the number of large homes on farmland in Richmond “explode” in 2016.

“Local governments have always had the jurisdiction to specify house sizes,” she says. “This is the problem. Local governments are so easily influenced by lobbyists and developers.”

In May 2017 Richmond council passed a bylaw to limit houses to 10,764 square feet on properties over half an acre. This new limit underwent a six month review period. When this review was up, about a year ago, Gillander thought her group would see limits reduced on housing square footage. However, nothing changed.

“City staff produced a chart that showed all of the permit applications that had come in and on what size of acreage. A lot had come through at exactly the maximum,” she notes. “We actually had every indication that they were going to reduce the size of the footprint. We were feeling quite positive at that point. Then we kind of heard that the fix was in. [Council] said let’s just go back to the status quo and do nothing.”

She would like to see Richmond apply a similar restriction to that of Delta where houses are a maximum of 3,552 square feet on properties up to 20 acres and 5,005 square feet on properties over 20 acres.

Ben Dhiman is a director of Richmond Farmland Owners Association (RFOA) and feels the Richmond housing size isn’t an issue, but does believe there is a lack of understanding of a farmer’s way of life. Dhiman is a blueberry grower with B&B Dhiman Blueberry Farm and a full-time longshoreman.

“We formed an association after a lot of farmers had a concern about the house size [limit] the city of Richmond wanted to impose,” he says. “The purpose of the group is to … have one voice when dealing with the city or large issues because we feel farmers are already a small portion of the population. We’ve been working very hard to have our side of the story heard.”

In May. 2017 Richmond council passed a bylaw to limit houses to 10,764 square feet on properties over half an acre.

In May. 2017 Richmond council passed a bylaw to limit houses to 10,764 square feet on properties over half an acre.

Dhiman feels that the limit of 10,764 square feet is reasonable and that with it, there is no issue with house sizes on farmland in Richmond.

“We don’t want to see the 20,000 square foot homes. The average [size] of the homes is actually 6,600 square feet, so there’s actually no issue,” he notes. “There’s no need to restrict the house size further.”

After May 2017, Gillanders notes speculation “took off” in Richmond where she says a property was purchased for $2 million, got a permit for a “mansion” and sold for $7.7 million.

“Just because they have the permit to build a mansion,” she says.

According to Dhiman, the current limit is an improvement over the Ministry of Agriculture guideline because the 10,764 square feet includes patios, garages and other non-living spaces. A single story can’t exceed 5,382 square feet.

The debate about house sizes has Dhiman concerned but not as much as what he feels is an attack on the way of life of Asian farmers.

“In my house, my mom lives there, I live there, my brother, his wife and two kids. We take care of our own. For that, we need a little extra space,” he explains. “We moved to Richmond in 1998. This is the way that we live and now the way that we live has come under attack. When you look at most of the workers on the farm, you see mostly Asian workers. We feel that this is an attack by people who don’t understand farmers.”

Gillanders says active farmers’ homes aren’t the concern.

“None of those farmers live in houses that big. They just build them and sell them to foreign investors,” she says. “We looked up which houses they [some members of RFOA] live in and they live in a reasonable sized house. Then we found out that they were all involved in development.”

She noted some members of RFOA are farmland realtors or developers, but Dhiman doesn’t see how the occupation of a farmer is relevant.

“I work seven days a week, eight hours a day. In the morning I work on the farm. Anything that needs to be done,” he notes. “Farmwatch is making farmers’ lives a living hell. They should be more appropriately named Housewatch.”

One of Gillanders concerns is that farmers who lease land can’t speak out about the issue for fear of losing their lease.

“It’s a tenuous situation,” she says. “They lease from owners who have mansions on farmland but live offshore. Kwantlen did a white paper that showed this speculation is driving the cost of farmland up.”

Gillanders notes that speculation wouldn’t occur if families built multi-generational homes and stayed in them. Her belief is that speculation is caused by those being built and sold.

“You’re dealing with really high land prices that will never change because of the proximity to Vancouver,” Dhiman says. “They’re trying to create a solution to a problem they don’t have because a lot of farms are transferred inter-generationally. City residents don’t understand farmers. We can’t even be allowed to build a house to accommodate our families. We can’t have a house to suit our needs.”

Farmwatch went to the province over the issue in 2017 and Gillanders says the proposal was well received. She notes a ministry press release in August 2018 stated, “House size on farmland was pretty much the number one issue.” She is concerned that municipalities, like Richmond, may still be able to impose their own house size limits even if the province steps in.

“We’d like to see the speculation stop and the mansion building industry moved away from farmland back to residential where it should be,” she says. “We want to see our community come back together and move on. This has gone on a really long time and it’s caused a lot of division.”

Dhiman wants to see more tolerance and understanding.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the general population do not farm,” he says. “They want to tell us how to live. I’ve had concerned farmers call me from Kamloops and concerned farmers call me from Pemberton.”

The next step for RFOA in response to the province’s involvement has been to create the Fraser Valley Farmland Association which will be a public organization handling issues at a provincial level.

“There’s a lot of worried farmers around BC,” notes Dhiman. “Politics are dividing our community. The way that the government is handling this issue is going to affect every single farmer. Every single farmer needs to get in touch with our association or me directly. We need to carry the fight to the provincial level. We need to band together shoulder to shoulder. If we don’t stick together… there will be changes coming down that will impact farmers and not in a good way. They are coming down from a lack of understanding.”

Provincial decisions are expected from the fall session, but no results were available at the time of writing other than the province indicating recommendations to limit house sizes within the Agricultural Land Commission will be acted on in the fall of 2018.

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