Owners frustrated in effort to remove land from agricultural reserve

A Sooke farmer says he faces homelessness because years of battling the Agricultural Land Commission have “broken” him financially, physically and emotionally, leaving him with few options other than to abandon the family farm.

Ed Shaw, who lives on 40 acres of land along West Coast Road that his family has held since the late 1950s, said he’s been turned down in repeated attempts to have his land removed from the land reserve.

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Shaw, 67, said the land is unfarmable and he wants to sell it. But because the property was pulled into the ALR when it was created in 1974, the market for it isn’t there for a sale.

The commission’s purpose is to preserve agricultural land and encourage farming. To that end, it imposes restrictions on what can be done with land included in the ALR. The impact of those restrictions can be a limited market and reduced value.

“It prohibits activities which would be inconsistent with agricultural use and it can override municipal zoning. In that context, you are often preventing land from achieving what may otherwise be its highest and best use from an economic perspective,” said Randy Holt, vice-president of commercial real estate firm DTZ Victoria.

“There could be very good public policy reasons for it, but the impact on economic value tends to be negative.”

Shaw said in his case, it’s been disastrous.

“It’s broken us … trying to deal with it,” said Shaw. “I’m at the end of the line. I have people that will buy my place and all the land and that would pay all the mortgages off and I could look toward retiring if (the land) comes out of the ALR. If it doesn’t, I can’t.”

Shaw said the lack of soil on his land essentially makes much of it unfarmable. Though there is a small hay field on the property, that crop doesn’t pay for itself.

He has tried growing a wide variety of crops with little success, and has investigated leasing the land to other would-be farmers with myriad ideas, including worm farms, berry farms, cut flowers and on-land fish farms. None were financially viable.

“Nothing was realistic,” said an exasperated Shaw. “I’ve asked the ALC what do they want me to do? … I’ve asked them to tell me what can work and I never get an answer.”

Commission staff said the ALC does not comment publicly on applications other than what’s included in its decisions.

In its most recent refusal to remove Shaw’s land from the ALR, the commission decided the property had good agricultural suitability. The commission cited a report from Madrone Environmental Services suggesting the soil could be improved via deep-soil ripping, subsoil drainage and irrigation. That report, however, also said the improvements may not be economically practical.

It’s left Shaw at a loss.

“We are basically destitute. When we get the notice to leave this place that’s the end of the line. We have nowhere to go,” he said.

For the last several years, the Shaws have plunged whatever money was made from other work into the farm. Shaw and his wife have used all of their retirement savings to keep it going in the hope they could get some movement from the land commission.

But those funds have all but dried up.

The Shaws’ total family income is about $1,100 per month and doesn’t come close to covering the more than $4,000 owed to the banks each month.

Shaw notes that over the years the farm was buoyed by outside income with his work in the forest industry and then in road building.

“I was making the payments by logging … but now it’s depleting everything we had and I’ve been selling off anything small I can afford to get rid of,” he said.

It’s taken more than just a financial toll on the family. Shaw recently suffered a small stroke, and now has blood pressure issues and has been told to avoid stress. His wife Marion, 59, has endured a physical toll as a result of the situation and his daughter, Stephanie, 34, who is living at the farm, has felt the pain both physically and emotionally.

Shaw is not the only frustrated land owner in the region.

Sooke farmer Cam MacIntyre gave up the fight after realizing his attempt to get commission approval to build a small house on his farm to lease out to a tenant farmer was an exercise in frustration.

“They said we weren’t busy enough as a farm to justify it,” he said, noting the decision defied common sense as that second home on the property would have allowed a younger farmer to come in and work the land.

As it stands, the MacIntyres have scaled back their farm to appreciate retirement.

“We used to have everything — we had beef, turkeys, chickens, horses — now it’s not a working farm,” he said. “It’s just not common sense. But I can see the forest for the trees, and I am not going to frustrate myself and beat my head against a wall.”

Both Shaw and MacIntyre believe the Sooke region may be being punished for past misdeeds. For example, Sunriver developers Shambrook Hills Development Corp. paid a $50,000 bribe to former ministerial aide Dave Basi in 2002 hoping for assistance in getting land for the development out of the ALR.

“People have said we’re being punished for all the wrongdoings and bad commission decisions and now nothing is coming out [of the ALR],” said Shaw. “It fries me to think that 13 people who are appointed have control of your life as to whether you can carry on or not.”

Sooke Mayor Wendal Milne has noticed the commission has been taking a harder line on land removal applications over the last few years.

“They’ve basically taken the position that really no land is coming out of the ALR,” Milne said. The Shaw family, he said, have been up against “a stone wall … after our last meeting [with commission staff], I didn’t see any chance of any flexibility.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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