Here in BC there has been a valuing of agricultural land for many years, the goal being to protect the ability to farm and have local food being produced. Certainly over and over again this is emphasized by governments at all levels and by large segments of the public, but are the actions of local government helping or hindering?
Strict Enforcement of Plans versus Compromise to Protect Agricultural
As the Central Saanich OCP and the CRD Regional Growth Strategy are written, the development clearly is not allowed. Central Saanich and the CRD have a choice to make between sticking to the letter of the OCP and Regional Growth Strategy or making changes that will allow the continuance of commercial agriculture in our region.
This is from the Central Saanich OCP
1.2. Fundamental Principles
Seventeen fundamental principles provide the foundation for the objectives and policies of this plan.
The residents of Central Saanich have expressed strong support for preservation of the agricultural land base, and the farming economy which depends on it. Any future residential, commercial or industrial growth should be directed towards the established Urban Settlement Area. Agriculture is an important contributor to the local and regional economy, creating jobs, and generating revenues.
Maintain Rural Character
Rural lands and rural lifestyles are highly valued by residents of Central Saanich. The rural character of Central Saanich, defined by its large agricultural land base and its compact, mixed-use village centres, should be sustained; future growth should be focused within the established Urban Settlement Area within the municipality.
If you look at the whole range of princples and consider the Hill Project, it fits really well with the OCP. The problem is that the OCP was not written with the knowledge of the future and what the best path would be to protect the values. Official community plans and other planning processes are not long term and permanent plans, but plans for a period of time to set the pace and course for how development will proceed.
Planning processes are not only black and white plans but they also contain statements of intent for the community. The intent of both the Central Saanich OCP and CRD RGS is to maintain green space, agricultural lands and contain growth. Both of the OCP and RGS will be amended in the future, changing overtime as the situation warrants is acceptable and fundamentally warranted if if goes further in achieving the goals of the OCP.
What happens when the words of an OCP and the maps of the plan run counter to each other? The Central Saanich OCP clearly wants to retain agricultural land, but what happens if the OCP maps get in the way of this?
Economics of Agriculture
There are very few larger scale farming operations left in the CRD. At 750 acres of owned and leased farm land, the Vantrieghts are one of the few that have the economy of scale to be able to be economic.
There are two big capital costs for farms, land and infrastructure.
The Vantreight farm has spent the money on the infrastructure in the form of a 70,000 sq foot warehouse, 120,000 sq foot greenhouse and eight 1600 sq foot cold storage units. These facilities represent an investment of something in the range of $10,000,000..
Agricultural land in the CRD sells for $30,000 to $100,000 an acre. For someone to acquire enough land to put together a 100 acre farm, the cost would be in the range of $5,000,000. It is now virtually impossible for anyone to choose to go into farming in this region. To retain farming in this region means we have to maintain the families on the land they have now.
In the case of the Vantrieghts, the family has been on the land for a long time and it was only because Ian Vantreight was not a new entrant that he could raise the money to buy out his brother's interest in the farm.
In 2006 the region was close to seeing the farm sold off completely. If the sale had gone ahead, the region would have lost one of the most significant farms as it would have been replaced by a large number of estate properties with little or no farming of any sort.
The farm could be parceled into 37 different properties through existing right to subdivide the titles. The scale of the houses that would be build on this land would in the range of 5000 to 10,000 square feet with the rights to build a second building on the parcel. The sale of the farm would not only mean the loss of significant land in production but also the exact sort of sprawl that both the OCP and the RGS want to stop.
The Vantreights have a next generation that is willing to take over the farm, that being Ryan. Ryan has moved the farm is some very interesting ways. He is not going down the agri-tourism direction that some people have done in this region. Ryan is taking the farm down the path of it being the cornerstone of regional agriculture and the centre piece of food security.
The proposed development is located on land that has never been with the ALR. The land is of the Mount Newton soil type which is shallow and not very productive.
To the south east of the development there is a small portion of the land that is not within the ALR that likely should have been. With no loss of farmable land, the economics of the farm are not harmed by this development though the proceeds of the development would allow for long term financial security for the farm. This is fundamentally important as it is valid argument to be made that land should be removed from the ALR as it is not economical to farm it.
The development fits very well within the existing development and is a natural extension of the existing residential areas in North Saanich. It flows well and reinforces density staying within an existing neighbourhood.
The plan calls for 57 houses to be built. If the plan does not go ahead and the farm is sold off as individual parcels, Central Saanich is likely to see the same number of houses built on the individual properties, though these houses would be spread out over a much larger area.
Potential Sharp Tail Snake habitat is maintained in the plans. The snake is considered endangered in Canada, but this is also the northern limits of what the potential habitat. The development sets the potential habitat aside in a way that existing rules for the land do not.
The Future Without the Plan:
The odds are that without the development the farm will be sold as individual parcels. The majority of these properties will become estate like properties with very large houses on them. The rules of the ALR land allows for secondary suites, a second house to built on a property and for a mobile home as well.
If the farm were to be divided in 37 different parcels and each property required on average from half to one acre for a driveway, the loss of the farm would also mean an additional 20 to 40 acres of pavement. Assuming each property had one house of 5000 sq feet on three floors, another 2000 sq foot house on two floors and an accessory building of 6000 sq feet, this would mean another 8700 sq feet of land on each property covered with an impervious surface for a total of another 7 acres.
The loss of the Vantreight farm would not only remove their farm from production, but also another 350 acres of leased farm lands. This would move a lot of land in hay production from the current use. It would also remove about 40 agricultural jobs in the region. Farm suppliers in the region would feel the loss of the farm as well.
Without the Hill project, Central Saanich will lose more of its rural nature and continue the trend towards being the home for the rich with their horse estates.
The Compromise that makes the most sense.
The proposal from the Vantreights for their Hill development makes the most sense as it lives up to the spirit and intent of the OCP and the Regional Growth Strategy. Ian Vantreight took on a burden that benefits the whole region. He and his son have a passion for farming and should be rewarded for taking a huge risk to preserve the farm.
While we do not know what the price was that had to be paid to acquire the other half of the farm, it was likely in the range of $15,000,000. We also do not know what the gross or net income of the farm is, but doing some quick calculations, it seems that the debt servicing costs are enough to make the farm uneconomic.
If the farm is not making money, or is making only a very small profit, the banks will come and force the Vantreights to sell. Central Saanich has to give serious consideration to how the economics of the farm impact the ability of land to remain in agricultural production. If the farm has to be sold, it is clear that the blame will rest with the council for being blind to a creative way to meet the needs of the farm and the Central Saanich OCP.
Only the Hill project will ensure that the rural nature of Central Saanich has some certainty over the long term.