Corky Evans was the MLA for Nelson-Creston from 1991 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2009. He’s thrilled by a provincial change to allow more secondary housing on agricultural land reserves. File photo

Corky Evans was the MLA for Nelson-Creston from 1991 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2009. He’s thrilled by a provincial change to allow more secondary housing on agricultural land reserves. File photo

ALR housing rule changes delight landowners, confound administrators

Farmers can have both a principal residence and small secondary residence on property

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

The news that the provincial Agricultural Land Commission is relaxing the rules to allow more secondary housing on agricultural land reserves is welcome news to one notable Slocan Valley farmer.

“I am thrilled,” said Winlaw-area farmer (and former MLA and Agriculture Minister) Corky Evans. “We never wanted special treatment from the Land Commission. What we thought was reasonable for us is reasonable for all farmers of our age group, so a policy change that works for everyone is just what we had hoped would someday happen.”

That policy change, called “profound” by some local politicians, will see far more flexibility in the kinds of secondary housing allowed on farms and properties designated under the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

As of Dec. 31, the province is allowing farmers and ALR landowners to have both a principal residence and small secondary residence on their property. The additional residence can be used for housing extended family, agri-tourism accommodation, housing for farm labour or a rental property for supplemental income.

There is no longer a requirement that additional residences must be used by the landowner or immediate family members.

The application process has been simplified as well, with permission needed only from local governments and/or First Nations.

Evans, 72, and his partner had applied to the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s Rural Affairs Committee in March for permission to build a tiny home on their Slocan River Road farm. He said they wanted to continue to live there and let the next generation of their family take over operation of the property.

The Rural Affairs Committee approved the request going forward to the Agricultural Land Commission, despite concerns from staff it did not meet regulations and policies of the regional government or the provincial body.

Directors at the time said they felt the rules had to change, and Evans’ case would make a good example.

Now that the rules have changed, Evans says it looks like the province was listening.

“The Government of B.C. and the Ministry of Agriculture and the ALC held community meetings all over the province a few years ago,” he told the Valley Voice. “I think this change was the result of the input they received from farmers and landowners. It is good to see public process and dialogue actually turn into real change.”

Questions at the RDCK

But change isn’t easy, especially when it’s sprung on regional officials who have to apply the decision and administer the process. Regional District of Central Kootenay directors, who had earlier in the year said they would support exactly this kind of change, said they had many questions about the decision.

“That is a download on us – the streamlined approval process,” said Area I director Andy Davidoff at the Rural Affairs Committee meeting of the RDCK, a day after the announcement was made. “The impact on official community planning now … the potential implications are profound.”

Another director worried that the policy may change again, causing people to rush into the approval process in order to get their applications while they could.

“This kind of changing back-and-forth on policies is highly disruptive to communities,” said Area A director Garry Jackman. “In the very short term, I anticipate this is going to create another disruption in work flows, because it’s going to trigger a mass of applications.”

“Is our community planning and zoning still in place?” asked Area E director Ramona Faust. “If our zoning supercedes the ability to have secondary homes on lands of certain sizes and locations, our question are answered. Otherwise, it’s a free-for-all.”

But staff couldn’t offer much light on the subject.

“It’s too recent and we have to digest it to see how it fits into our policies,” said CAO Stuart Horn.

ALC opens gates

The land commission rule change opens all sorts of opportunities for people on ALR land to make additional money off their property.

The additional residence can be used for housing extended family, agritourism accommodation, housing for farm labour or just as a rental property for supplemental income. There is no longer a requirement that additional residences must be used by the landowner or immediate family members.

A wide variety of buildings are now allowed, including garden suites, guest houses or carriage suites, accommodation above an existing building, and manufactured homes.

The province says the changes are good for farming and food production.

“We hope this regulatory change will assist new farmers starting their businesses, encourage landowners to partner with new farmers to get their land into production, and address the needs of British Columbian families,” said agriculture minister Lena Popham. “Having an option for housing opens up new doors to families and provides more opportunities for more agricultural land to go into production, increasing our province’s food security.”

A local food policy analyst, Abra Brynne, says she doesn’t see it that clear-cut, and the rule change is an example of the tightrope that government walks trying to regulate agricultural land.

“As soon as you add additional residential dwellings or infrastructure onto it, you drive up the cost of that farmland. We know we need more and more and more farmers because our farmers are aging out, and food security is more critical these days, but we have this dilemma of farm prices going up,” she says. “But the flip side of that is if we can figure out how to enable multi-generational families to cohabitate on a property, or work cooperative farms, it’d be really great.

“It’s a paradox for trying to make it work because farm prices have been driven up so high. Despite the ALR mechanism to keep them lower, they’re still out of reach for most people who want to farm. So there’s no easy answer.”

And Brynne notes removing the ALC from the process actually goes back to an earlier practice, which was discontinued when it created problems.

“It was delegated to local authorities to make the decision, and it was counter-productive to the intent of preserving farmland because of the political pressure,” she says. “There was a lot of farmland lost under that model.

“I can understand why they cycled back to that, but it’s not without its dangers.”

Still, back in the Slocan Valley, Evans agrees it’s good for the future of farming.

“There is lots of unused farmland and good soils in our region that is in need of housing to allow folks to live and work on the land,” he told the Valley Voice. “My age group, especially, will benefit by allowing younger people to live and work here.”