The chair of B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) is questioning whether winery restaurants and other business ventures that seek to sprawl on agricultural land should be authorized farm uses.
Richard Bullock said he's examining whether the the trend may erode the productivity of Lower Mainland farmland, which is already under attack on multiple fronts.
"We want to find out how serious a problem it is," he said. "How far should we go in allowing these businesses to grow and morph into something far beyond what the original idea was?"
Bullock raised the issue of farms building add-on facilities with little connection to their crops at a meeting of Metro Vancouver's regional planning and agriculture committee last Friday.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, who opposed the application that was approved by Richmond council, said the Lulu winery complex is already "huge" and primarily uses grapes grown in the Okanagan, not its local property.
"The winery is there to have a restaurant, it's not there for any other reason that I can see," said Steves, who calls it a serious concern and argues such non-farm uses should be steered to commercial or industrial land instead.
"All kinds of people are looking at ALR land for commercial wineries, restaurants and banquet halls," he said.
Bullock said the commission regularly receives requests to add restaurants to wineries.
The issue isn't limited to wineries, he said, noting some farmers start with small-scale processing facilities that "all of a sudden become very large scale industrial operations" on farmland.
"When people get successful at doing something, they want to grow," Bullock said. "But when have you grown beyond what was originally anticipated?"
Bullock also told Metro Vancouver reps he shares their fear that Port Metro Vancouver could seek to transform more ALR farmland into port terminals and related industry.
"We, like you, are concerned," Bullock said, adding the ALC wants to determine whether the port can override the land commission's rulings on what can be built on ALR land.
"We are doing further research into this question about jurisdiction," he said. "We've had, frankly, very little engagement with Port Metro Vancouver."
Metro's concerns were heightened last month when the port's CEO suggested ALR farmland could be swapped for other land to achieve further port expansion.'
Metro directors also told Bullock they remain deeply concerned about the degradation of farmland through the illegal dumping of fill.
Delta Coun. Ian Paton said developers who need to dump unwanted soil from construction sites but balk at paying $800 to $1,000 a load at the Vancouver Landfill are instead finding farmers who let them dump it for as little as $200 a load.
Farmland owners frequently claim they need to raise the level of their land because it's too low to grow crops.
"Nine times out of 10, it's a crock," Paton said. "All they want to do is bring in fill material and make themselves a purse full of money."
Steves said the owner of a large property can make $1 million or more piling fill on it.
But the next farmer who tries to plow the land often turns up plastic, garbage and contaminated debris.
Bullock said the ALC wants to partner with local cities that are willing to use their staff to help enforce rules on ALR land.
The Metro committee plans to meet the ALC again to explore agricultural concerns more fully.
Steves said more must be done to prevent farmland from turning into parking lots for trucks.
"The port has told independent truckers they have to find somewhere else to park their trucks other than port land," he said.
Too many farms seem to be adding large areas of gravel fill, he said.
"They say it's for farm vehicle operation and then they use it for parking trucks," Steves said. "These are all growing pains from the city. Trucks, soil and residential activities are all being pushed into the ALR when they don't really belong there."