How Langford could reshape the future of agricultural land

The City of Langford is pursuing a new action plan on agriculture that could change its approach to farmland protection and development.

Proposals include easing the removal of unproductive properties from the Agricultural Land Reserve through cash contributions, while building a fund to support urban agriculture.

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And with four property owners interested in removing their land from the ALR in the Happy Valley area, it may have its guinea pigs.

“What we’re really hoping to do is allow people to farm and have that fresh, local produce, even though people are wanting to get their land out of the ALR,” Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak told the Times Colonist.

“This way, we have the best of both worlds.”

The authority to approve ALR applications sits with the Agricultural Land Commission, but municipalities can submit recommendations.

Langford can support exclusions from the land reserve only when there is a “considerable benefit” — such as other farmland or infrastructure — provided.

A proposal made on behalf of two property owners hoping to leave the ALR suggests that requirement could be met through a “cash contribution” toward an agriculture fund.

C&F Land Resource Consultants and Keycorp Development and Marketing Ltd. are proposing a rate of $13.45 per square metre for land removed from the ALR. The money would go to a fund to be used by the city to support agriculture.

If expanded beyond those two properties, the proposal could be a source of capital necessary to realize the council’s agricultural vision, staff said in a report.

Szpak outlined that vision in a March letter to the Agricultural Land Commission.

“It is Langford’s strong desire to see intensive agricultural activity with significant capital infrastructure result from this initiative. We feel there is unrealized potential for vineyard, hops or berry plantations,” she wrote.

The city has not yet received a formal response from the commission. CEO Frank Leonard declined to comment but said he would ensure Langford receives a reply.

The city’s agricultural action plan is based on a 2007 survey that found many of the 83 South Langford properties protected by the ALR — about 110 acres of a total 290 acres — had little or no agricultural suitability. It also found some non-ALR areas had great agricultural potential.

The survey was commissioned by the municipality and carried out by C&F Land Resource Consultants, the same group proposing the new fees.

“About 40 per cent of the land base in the ALR is … rocky, fully treed, there’s a house located on it and nobody’s farming it,” planning director Matthew Baldwin said.

“The 60 per cent of land still farmable would be the obvious place to start looking for opportunities.”

Since 2007, three South Langford properties and a portion of a fourth — about 18 acres in total — have been excluded from the ALR.

The four properties subject to applications for exclusion are Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm, at 3505  Happy Valley Rd., as well as three lots that host single-family dwellings: 3497 Happy Valley Rd., 948 Latoria Rd. and 866 Latoria Rd.

Lynda Dowling, who owns the lavender farm with her husband, Michael, once staunchly defended the ALR as a “sacred future.”

But the Dowlings have had to close the farm, which requires intensive labour, after Michael was in a truck accident.

“I need to work off the farm to bring in a wage. It’s simply my new reality; I’m doing the best I can,” she said.

“It’s for our best future.”

Dave and Daphne Carter are also trying to get their five acres at 866 Latoria Rd. out of the ALR. They said the property should never have been included in the land reserve — it’s heavily treed and rocky. “A lot of the properties down here just got paint-brushed in,” Dave said.

But he said he won’t be able to afford the proposed $13.45 per square metre fee. “It ends up being in excess of $275,000. The assessed value of this property is $630,000,” he said.

However, the contribution would be levied only if the property were subdivided, and the city hopes to streamline the process by marrying ALR exclusion applications with rezoning applications, Baldwin said. That means a developer would likely be responsible for the cost if the Carters were to sell.

Reg Ens, executive director of the B.C. Agriculture Council, said land should be taken out of the ALR as a last resort.

“Unfortunately, there are parts of society and developers who see the Agricultural Land Reserve as a reserve for future development,” he said. “It’s a low-cost opportunity to expand, so it’s the first place they look.”

He said the idea of charging an amenity fee in exchange for exclusion from the ALR has come up before in other municipalities.

“Our board wrestled with that. On the surface it sounds good, but the challenge is, it’s almost like paying a sin tax,” Ens said.

“We don’t have an official policy on this, but we don’t want to make it too easy, where someone with enough money can just pay a tax to do what they want.”

If all of the land identified as not suitable for agriculture in 2007 participated, revenues of $6,218,000 could be collected via the fee. After expenses such as infrastructure and administrative costs, the net surplus would be an estimated $1,482,000.

Langford has previously collected money for an agriculture fund. Before the city aggregated amenity contributions into a single fund, it collected about $200,000 to $300,000 in contributions toward agriculture.

None of that money has actually been spent, Baldwin said, though the city does support a farmers market using different funds.

Szpak said the funds collected could be used toward infrastructure, irrigation and other services that support agriculture. While the action plan intends to encourage farming on arable land, she said it’s not about re-envisioning Langford as a farming haven.

“We’re saying yes, we’re the urban centre of the West Shore. But we have these little viable farms,” she said.

“There’s an opportunity for local growing and we’re thinking about it in an urban-agricultural way.”

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