BC Greens push to ban foreign ownership of farmland

Regulations could be tailored after similar legislation in Saskatchewan – but the B.C. drive is really meant to cool a hot housing market in the Lower Mainland

Western Investor
October 2, 2017



As Fraser Valley farmland approaches $50,000 per acre, the leader of the BC Green Party is calling for the provincial government to ban foreigners from buying farmland in a bid to cool a red-hot real estate market.

Housing prices in Metro Vancouver dipped temporarily after the previous Liberal government implemented a 15 per cent tax on foreign buyers last summer, but prices remain the highest in the country.

Green Leader Andrew Weaver said foreign buyers quickly started looking elsewhere for investment properties, including farmland, where the levy doesn’t apply.

Many non-residents are buying land zoned for agricultural use but instead of farming, they’re building large homes and selling the property for inflated prices, he said.

According to Farm Credit Canada (FCC), farmland values in B.C.’s Lower Mainland increased 17.7 per cent in 2016 from a year earlier – the highest increase in Canada. FCC reports that provincewide farmland values rose 8.2 per cent, year-over-year.

A 2016 Vancity credit union survey found that the per-acre market price for the farmland in the Lower Mainland ranges between $150,000 and $350,000 for parcels of less than five acres. These prices are about 20 times higher than farmland prices across the rest of Western Canada.

“We’re seeing a preponderance of mega-mansions starting to appear on what formerly was agricultural land in parts of Metro Vancouver,” Weaver said.

“While that may incentivize the construction industry in the area, it’s not boding well for the long term, in which the agricultural land is slowly but surely being taken out of production.”

Using agricultural land for pricey homes instead of farming drives up real estate prices and decreases food security, Weaver said.

“We’re now in a situation where land and houses are being treated as commodities that are traded like gold or potash or silver as opposed to their purpose,” he said.

Tom Davidoff, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, said he doesn’t see how prohibiting foreign buyers from purchasing farmland would impact affordability.

“I don’t understand how preventing some rich guy from building a luxury mansion on a farm makes an apartment in Vancouver cheaper. I really don’t see that,” he said.

But limiting large homes on agricultural land makes sense, Davidoff added.

“I think it’s wrong to have people building mega-mansions and treating them as residential real estate if the whole point of [agricultural land] is not to be residential real estate,” he said.

About 5 per cent of B.C. is zoned as Agricultural Land Reserve, meaning it is protected for agricultural use. There are approximately 150,000 acres of agricultural reserve land in the Lower Mainland.

Provincial regulations limit the land’s usage, but each property is entitled to a single-family dwelling and owners can apply for exemptions to building and land-use restrictions.

City councillors in Richmond voted earlier this year to limit the size of homes on protected agricultural lands to 10,000 square feet.

City staff submitted a report to councillors in March saying they received about 15 applications for building permits on agricultural land per year, but the requested square footage had grown. One application submitted in 2016 requested permission to build a near 40,000-square-foot house.

The report also said staff received 26 applications between January and mid-March of this year.

Several provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, have measures in place regulating who can purchase farmland. In Alberta, non-residents are limited to owning 20 acres of agricultural land; Saskatchewan limits non-resident farmland ownership to 10 acres.

Weaver said his proposed prohibition would not apply to anyone who pays taxes in Canada, including Canadians living overseas and people in the country on work visas.

“We want to encourage people to come live here, work here, pay taxes here. What we don’t want is third-party, offshore interests using our land, our homes, as tools for speculative investment,” he said.

The Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement the government shares Weaver’s concerns about how farmland is being used and has “been clear in our belief that [protected agricultural land] should be used for farming.”

B.C.’s housing minister has said the province is also looking at the foreign-buyers tax and other measures implemented by the previous Liberal administration.

Frank O'Brien is the editor of Western Canada's biggest commercial real estate newspaper, Western Investor, as well as a contributing editor at West Coast Condominium, real estate contributor to Business in Vancouver and a regular media commentator on real estate investment.
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