County moves to tighten regulations on agricultural subdivisions

Tree farms, u-pick berry farms, greenhouses, horse training facilities and other agricultural operations will have to have existed

Tree farms, u-pick berry farms, greenhouses, horse training facilities and other agricultural operations will have to have existed for three years before they can be subdivided from quarter sections, according to a bylaw which received first reading by Lacombe County councillors last Thursday.

Residents and taxpayers will have a chance to address proposed changes to the county’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) at a public hearing on Jan. 10.

At a committee of the whole planning workshop in October, councillors reviewed the number of agricultural subdivisions received and approved since the MDP was adopted in August 2007. The review was done to confirm whether the current agricultural subdivision policy is meeting council’s objectives, said Dale Freitag, manager of planning services.

“Concern was expressed that the present wording of the policy leaves the door open for the approval of subdivisions that will not be used for the purpose of an agricultural operation as applied for.”

The policy provides for the subdivision from a quarter section of a lot not less than 4.05 hectares (10 acres) in size for more intensive or specialized agricultural use.

Of the 45 agricultural subdivisions approved since 2007, 26 (58 per cent) were for tree farms. Twelve of those were sold after the subdivision was approved and no tree farm was established. “Based on inspections of all the properties it appears that there are only four active tree farms which are typically only using a small portion of the parcel for the operation,” said Freitag’s written report. “Of these four operations, two were active tree farms at the time of subdivision.”

Further, Freitag’s report stated, in 2012, 72 per cent of the applications under this policy were for tree farms.

The goal of the proposed changes, he said, is to try to preserve agricultural land and make sure reasons for subdivision are legitimate.

The biggest change in the proposal is “confirmation that the operation has been established to at least 50 per cent of the proposed capacity outlined in the business plan” and “confirmation provided that the operation has been established for a minimum of three years prior to the application being made”.

The three year requirement was initially one year in the proposal from Freitag but was amended before councillors unanimously passed first reading of the bylaw.

Questioned about the need for a lot not less than 10 acres, Freitag said that’s based on Alberta Agriculture statistics which indicated a lot of more than 10 acres is “less likely to be used for residences alone. The study said 40 acres is the best number (for an agricultural operation to be viable) but we decided at the time 40 acres was too much so we went down to 10 acres.”

“The end of this whole thing is creation of separate titles,” said Councillor Cliff Soper. “What we’re trying to avoid is cutting up quarter sections into smaller pieces. I think there’s an opportunity for small farming operations, they seem to be becoming more popular.” He recommended three years of operation instead of one year before application is made to subdivide.

“Are we trying to grow more residences in the county, … in specific areas?” questioned Councillor Rod McDermand.

Councillor Paula Law replied, the reason for the change is “to stop 10 acres coming out with no intention of doing anything on it”. She indicated the current policy provides the easiest way to get a 10 acre parcel out of a quarter section. “We want to keep that land in agriculture.”

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