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Tree farm clause misused, county says

A decision on closing a misused tree farm clause in the Lacombe County’s bylaws has been deferred as county staff are going to prepare a report dealing with numerous issues raised during the public hearing.

The clause allowed owners of agricultural land to submit an application for subdivision, saying they were going to start a tree farm.

But very few of these approved subdivisions ever became tree farms.

Since the adoption of the municipal development plan in August 2007, 26 applications for tree farm subdivisions have been approved.

Of those, 12 were sold after the subdivision was approved and based on property inspection, only four are active tree farms and two of those were active when the property was subdivided.

Currently, residential subdivisions are limited to four acres on agricultural land, while the tree farm subdivisions can be approved with a minimum 10-acre parcel size.

“They’re just subdividing these for financial reasons, that’s why we’re concerned about this,” said Councillor Keith Stephenson at Thursday’s council meeting.

To close the loophole, county staff recommended a policy amendment that would require an agricultural operation be active for three years prior to consideration of the application for subdivisions, and the operation must be at least at 50 per cent capacity outlined in the business plan.

However, this raised concern during the public hearing, as requiring a small agricultural operation such as berry farms, greenhouses, horse training facilities, goat farms, poultry farm or a produce market to have been active for three years before allowing subdividing raised some eyebrows.

Councillor Rob McDermand used the example of someone setting up a greenhouse and requiring a $2-million loan on land they don’t own for three years before they can apply for an agricultural subdivision.

“I think we’ve killed any opportunity for 10-acre parcels,” said McDermand. “You have to have title to get a loan.”

Serge Stelmack, representing Q Consulting Ltd., in Lacombe County, said such a bylaw would add prohibitive costs to starting a small farming operation.

“Why should small farmers have to play by a different set of rules than large farms when all you’re trying to close is a loophole?”

He offered different solutions to the problem, including a comprehensive business plan and proof of financing for the business plan as requirements for a subdivision application. He also suggested having a legal caveat worded to prevent misuse of the intent of the development plan.

County commissioner Terry Hager told council that staff could prepare a report addressing the issues raised during the public hearing, review the comments and come back to council.

Council voted unanimously to defer a motion as the bylaw went back to administration so they could prepare a report. Hager said as soon as the report is prepared, it will return to council.



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