Carrot and stick: Abbotsford’s radical strategy to bring order to lawless farm properties

How Abbotsford hopes to put an end to agricultural land use lawlessness

By Tyler Olsen | February 28, 2022 |5:00 am

The easy way or the hard way: five months ago that was essentially the choice the City of Abbotsford was about to give landowners ignoring certain rules about the use of agricultural land.

The city had spent years on an ambitious and unique plan to try to convince scofflaw property owners to rat themselves out before they are with with fines.

Now, even as Abbotsford recovers from November’s devastating flood, the city is preparing to start cracking down on scofflaw property owners. If successful, the strategy could set a blueprint for cities (like Langley and Chilliwack) with large amounts of agricultural land to actually start enforcing rules that govern how that land is used.

No complaint? No problem.

The dirty secret about bylaw enforcement in the Fraser Valley is that you can get away with breaking land-use rules, especially in agricultural areas, so long as no one complains. Municipalities say they don’t have the resources to proactively enforce rules (many required by provincial legislation) that aim to protect the region’s precious quantity of agricultural land. They also may be wary of the political ramifications of starting fights with the large numbers of landowners operating on the wrong side of land use laws. So historically, cities only start acting when they receive a complaint from the public.

That, in part, has led to today’s situation in which hundreds of farm properties across the region are “out of compliance,” as the municipalities call it. In other words, they’re breaking some sort of bylaw. The vast majority of property owners follow the rules. But Abbotsford staff found that nine per cent of ALR properties appear to be breaking at least one rule. In Abbotsford alone, there are thought to be as many as 400 non-compliant properties on farmland. Most violations in the city fall under three categories:
1) the use of secondary homes or suites;
2) illegal soil removal and dumping;
3) the storage of cars, trucks, RVs and other properties.

That first category draws relatively few complaints (and also happens to be a source of a relatively large number of relatively affordable homes).

It’s the second and third categories that are, or were, the subject of Abbotsford’s new plan to deal with rampant (by)lawlessness. That plan could have been a template for other farming communities to deal with their own bylaw problems. But it’s now unclear if, when, or how it will be rolled out.

The parking problem

The soil removal and dumping problem is relatively simple. But the parking question is more complex and has been a recurrent one in Abbotsford for more than a decade. ALR rules govern things like how many cars or trucks can be parked on a property. While parking and storage seem like an innocuous use of land, the rules exist for several reasons.

Individually, a truck, RV, or boat may occupy a fairly tiny piece of land. But collectively, they fill large swaths of farmland that could otherwise be used to grow crops in a province where arable soil is rare.

But it’s not just that. A variety of rules and tax policies exist to incentivize farming and, hopefully, try to preserve farmland. When businesses illegally use farmland for non-farm purposes, those policies can provide rule-breaking businesses an advantage over legally operating businesses that must pay industrial-grade taxes and land costs. The illegal use of farmland also pushes up the cost of agricultural properties. Those who abide by the rules can end up at a disadvantage: someone willing to illegally rent out property for truck storage has more projected revenue and may be able to pay more than a law-abiding prospective owner.

In Abbotsford, farm properties have a two-truck limit. That has created some problems when multiple occupants of multi-generational homes on farmland are employed as truck drivers. But many parcels have not three or four, but up to a dozen trucks parked on site. Other truck parking issues arise because of non-farm businesses based out of agricultural properties. Some have turned parts of their land into essentially long-term pay parking lots. Such operations proliferate in western and southern parts of Abbotsford. Though still farmable, the land in such places is less productive than on Sumas and Matsqui prairies. So operating a parking lot is easier (there are no crops to water or harvest) and the revenues are attractive and potentially more stable (ice storm damage and global prices pose little impact).

Judging by the 2014 photos, the City of Abbotsford estimated that 2% (one in 50) of all parcels were home to illegal parking of commercial vehicles, while 3% had a variety of other items illegally stored: RVs, boats, wrecked vehicles, construction equipment, and business equipment.

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The plan

Just before November’s flood, the city was preparing to begin an “awareness campaign” to remind people about agricultural land use rules. That campaign wasn’t just yet another friendly reminder. While officials would be patient with those who come clean about breaking the rules during a three-month grace period, anyone later found to be on the wrong side of the law, would immediately face a fine.

Even more unusual: Abbotsford could actually go looking for rule-breakers.

For five years, Abbotsford had been working on a comprehensive planning process for its massive swath of agricultural land. The plan, which the city called “AgRefresh,” would lay out how the city would regulate activity on agricultural land and encourage owners to use farmland for farming. Abbotsford is geographically the largest municipality in British Columbia, and three-quarters of its total area is in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Figuring out how to tackle hundreds of rule-breakers had been a key component of the AgRefresh process.

The process had been previously halted after the NDP took office in 2017 and began to overhaul laws governing how farmland is used. With the new rules in place, the city got back to work and finally approved AgRefresh. It included a detailed plan for a targeted, pro-active crackdown on ALR rulebreakers. (Staff euphemistically called it a plan to “improve bylaw compliance.”)

Using an aerial photo from 2014, city staff counted about 400 properties thought to be breaking one or more rules. Unauthorized secondary dwellings were thought to comprise nearly half of all violations. But they only draw only about 6% of all complaints, so the city didn’t plan to seek out and punish those owning properties with secondary homes. Instead, Abbotsford decided to focus on the most-frequent sources of complaints: illegal parking and illegal soil removal or dumping.

The blind eyes

The scale of the challenge is itself one of the main reasons it has gone unaddressed for so long. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), which sets many of the rules, has never had enough enforcement officers to actually police them. That remains to be the case, even though its enforcement ranks have been bolstered in recent years.

Instead, the ALC has historically left the task to cities and towns—which tend to only have enough bylaw officers to keep up with complaints (and sometimes they don’t even have enough to do that). Actively seeking out rule-breakers is thus rarely, if ever, done.

Many imagine bylaw enforcement to be similar to traffic enforcement: that when an officer sees a violation, the rule-breaker is tracked down and disciplined. But for bylaw infractions, officers only confront rule-breakers after someone complains, and fines are usually issued only as a last resort. With rare exceptions, if you can duck a complaint (whether from a neighbour or a business competitor), you can probably keep doing whatever it is you are doing.

In fact, even if a bylaw officer drives by your farmland parking lot, you may never hear from them. Neither the Township of Langley nor Chilliwack—the two other giant Fraser Valley municipalities—can even guess at the number of non-compliant farm properties within their borders. When The Current asked the Township of Langley and the City of Chilliwack about their bylaw enforcement efforts, both pointed to the challenges with targeted enforcement.

“To best utilize resources and provide value to taxpayers, it is the policy of the City to rely primarily, but not exclusively, on citizen complaints as a means of identifying infractions of these bylaws,” a City of Chilliwack spokesperson wrote in an email.

A Langley Township spokesperson wrote that its rural plan was hailed by the ALC in 1992, and that its bylaw enforcement is “complaint-driven, based on the Township’s geographic size and the significant resource implications that would otherwise be necessary with proactive enforcement.”

Therein lies the challenge for municipalities. But also, potentially, why Abbotsford’s suggested solution has the potential to change how things are done and set a new template for dealing with bylaw breakers.

Most illegal uses occur in west Abbotsford, where farmland is less productive. 🗺 City of Abbotsford
Most illegal uses occur in west Abbotsford, where farmland is less productive. 🗺 City of Abbotsford

How it may work

So Abbotsford knows there are hundreds of properties that it would like to bring to heel. And as the spokespeople for Langley and Chilliwack alluded to, forcing them to comply would take forever. But Abbotsford staff believed there was another possibility: incentivizing those property owners to act on their own.

That was the key to the city’s plan: convincing people that it’s easier to comply with the rules, rather than resist them or try to hide.

The plan, as presented pre-flood, was fairly simple: the city would start with an awareness campaign to let people know about the rules, then give property owners three months to rat themselves out—or, as staff more delicately put it, “self-report non-compliance to the City.” The city also expected the awareness campaign to field more complaints from other residents and observers.

The property owners would investigate themselves, essentially. Then they and city staff would “collaborate on steps to resolve non-compliance.” What that means would probably depend on the property, but the process would buy a property owner much more time before being fined.

But why would someone who has been skirting the (by)law for years actually declare themselves to be doing so now? The plan demanded a reason for a property owner to “self-report.” And it had one: after the three-month grace period ended, any property owners found to be breaching the rules without having self-reported their non-compliance were to be fined immediately after discovery.

Given the length of time it can take to reach compliance with the rules, having the fines start immediately upon discovery could be extremely costly for some homeowners.

The city also suggested it would have, uniquely, actually gone after some rule-breakers it came across, whether or not anyone had complained. According to the AgRefresh plan, staff members would “investigate city ‘discovery’ of non-compliance.” (The quotation marks around “discovery” are included by the city.) That, at least, is and was the plan as spelled out on paper. It suggests that if and when the city notices a potential violation linked to truck parking, storage, or soil deposit, it may itself take the lead, rather than wait for a complaint from the public.

The hope was that increasing the consequences of discovery—you get caught, you get fined—will bring landowners to city hall and reduce the need for the time-intensive investigations. But even last fall, as staff presented the plan to council, there was still a lack of clarity about just how bylaw officers would tackle property owners who called the city’s bluff and didn’t draw complaints from neighbours.

The plan laid out by staff hinged on a belief that most property owners would come forward. “We anticipate that when people do get the education that our calls for service will increase,” Magda Laljee, the city’s senior manager of bylaw services, told council last fall. Laljee said that the city’s stance after the initial grace period was still to be determined. “There is no plan for proactive enforcement at this time and what we will have to do is assess, monitor and pivot if we find the resources are not sufficient to respond.”

Whether the official strategy leads to officers actively targeting property scofflaws would have depended on just how many people came forward before the final enforcement stage. November’s floods appear to have delayed the plan, with staff focused on dealing with the results of that disaster.

A city spokesperson wrote to The Current in December noting that while AgRefresh is nearly done, staff’s focus had shifted to flood response, and that “further consideration of the AgRefresh bylaw compliance approach may be explored at a later date.”

But last week, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun told The Current that the city still intends to crack down on property owners flouting the city rules. The city has not yet publicly begun the mass communication process that, the plan says, would come before any targeted enforcement. But Braun said the city is already working on specific files.

“When people keep thumbing their noses at us and saying, ‘Well sue us,’ you know: be careful what you ask for because we just might do it.”

It’s those incidents, of course, that eat up time. The goal of Abbotsford’s strategy is that showing backbone toward one property owner will lead others to clean up their acts.

“We either get serious about this,” Braun said, “because we’ve had one eye closed for 30 years—or, if not, we might as well just close both eyes and say ‘OK, have at it.’”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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