Driving up to Kevin Buttar’s blueberry farm off Highway 15 can be tricky in the dark: go straight ahead on what seems to be a dirt driveway, and you’ll find yourself on top of a several-foot-high pile of soil. Make a sharp left, and you’ll end up at Buttar’s front door.
The pile of soil sitting beside Buttar’s house is the pre-load for what the 32-year-old hopes will be his dream home.
Plans for the approximately 10,000-square-foot house have enough room for his parents, grandparents, brother, wife and two-month-old son, as well as space for the two other kids Buttar and his wife hope to have. It would keep his family together, and allow him to raise his children on the farm his father bought in 1997.
All those hopes rest on the pile of dirt beside Buttar’s existing house. And now, because of new legislation affecting house sizes on the agricultural land reserve, he’s not sure if they will even happen.
| Cloverdale farmer Kevin Buttar outside of his current house on Highway 15. Buttar is worried incoming legislation that may not allow him to build an extension to his house.
Grace Kennedy photo
“It’s just taking your dreams away,” Buttar said. “Growing up … your dad’s going ‘Don’t worry man, you’re going to get the house you want. You’re going to get your room.’ And it just gives you that little joy.
“Now it’s like, 32 years old and I’m still looking forward to this house.”
The new legislation was bill 52, brought forward to the B.C. legislature on Nov. 5 to create changes to the Agricultural Land Commission Act. The bill intended to cap the size of houses on ALR land to 500-square-metres (about 5,400-square-feet), as well as crack down on construction dumping and restoring all ALR land as one zone.
According to Lana Popham, B.C.’s minister of agriculture, the bill was meant to act as protection for the province’s vulnerable farmland.
“This bill was about saying no to speculation,” she said. “I think we just made it very clear that speculation was out and farming was in.”
Farmland speculation is the reason why house size on ALR land is such a hot topic.
A 2018 research paper by Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems found that B.C. farmland is “an extremely lucrative investment proposition.”
In the Lower Mainland, farmland is often promoted for its investment value and development potential — even when it’s within the ALR. The potential for building large houses can fuel this speculation, as can the possibility of removing the land from the ALR. Exclusions are rare, the report notes, but when farmland changes from agricultural to urban use, the land value could increase by more than 2,000 per cent.
“You just have to pick up a Richmond paper almost every day of the week to understand that the mega-mansion situation was a crisis, in Richmond in particular, but it was also a growing crisis through the Fraser Valley and Langley and Cloverdale,” Popham said.
That was why the bill focused changes that were supposed to help support farmers and keep farmland suitable for agriculture. But capping house sizes at 5,400 square feet proved divisive.
“We knew that the house size part of the legislation was going to cause quite a conversation. And it did,” Popham said, laughing a little. “Couldn’t underestimate that.”
When Buttar heard about the proposed restrictions to house sizes on ALR land, he felt blindsided.
He had been working to build his home for five years, having to tear out two acres of blueberry plants because he couldn’t get the variance permit to build it further back on the lot and change his original plans from two smaller houses to one larger home. His pre-load had been settling the peat soil next to his house for nearly two years, and only now did he feel ready to apply for a building permit.
So when he heard about bill 52 — and the fact that only owners who had a concrete foundation in the ground would be able to build under the existing rules — he was upset.
“We’re slowly picking at [the house] and have a plan somewhat ready to go, and they literally push a bill on you and say you have two weeks to get it said and done?” Buttar said. “Dude, this project’s … been going on for five years.”
Like Popham expected, Buttar and farmers like him wanted conversation. So Buttar joined the BC Farmland Owners Association (BCFOA), an organization of farmers that formed 10 days after the bill was brought forward.
The organization was made up of 387 farming families who, like Buttar, felt the bill didn’t reflect the reality of farming in the province. Most of these farmers were from the Lower Mainland — 133 were from Abbotsford, while 92 were from Surrey and 47 were from Richmond — and nearly 60 per cent of produced blueberries. (Others grew vegetables and fruit or dealt in cattle; several said they had nothing or leased their land.)
On Nov. 20, the organization held a town hall in Surrey to protest the housing changes.
According to Delta South MLA and agriculture critic Ian Paton, the rally “heaped a lot of anger on the NDP because of rules that were coming down.”
The rally saw mostly South Asian farmers who were “really, really angry,” Paton, a BC Liberal MLA, said. Buttar spoke about how the changes would affect his family, and another Cloverdale farmer spoke about the challenges he would face.
Seven days later, the provincial government released a revised version of Bill 52, which would allow farmers with a building permit to fall under the old rules, even if they didn’t have a concrete foundation started by the time the regulations changed. Those farmers would then have until Nov. 5, 2019 to get construction started on their house.
For Buttar, it was a step forward.
“We’re happy with the decision that they made, that they’re going to give us a bit of leeway,” he said. But with Christmas coming on and no set date for when the regulations will be enacted (Popham hopes it will all be finalized before legislature reopens on Feb. 12, but can’t say for sure), Buttar doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make the deadline.
The City of Surrey said timelines for processing a building permit varies, but the target time is 10 weeks. Even if Buttar was able to get all his paperwork in by Dec. 7 — his personal goal — it’s possible he wouldn’t get his building permit until long after the provincial deadline.
“You’ve already taken up all this space. You’ve already brought all this non-native soil into the farm,” he said.
“If you don’t get your papers in now, and hopefully from the city get your permit before then, you’re pretty much … out of luck.”
The amended bill does have an avenue for farming families who want to build above the 5,400 square foot limit, Popham said, and the regulations will include a “path forward” for multi-generational families who need extra space. What that path will look like depends on regulations that will be decided in the new year.
But for Buttar, another delay isn’t inviting.
“I’ve been in this project for so long,” he said. “I want to continue farming. I want to show my son the ways.”