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Tree farm loophole being closed

Lacombe County is cracking down on residents who were using a planning loophole to get around rules limiting the size of agricultural subdivisions.

Under county rules for first-parcel-out subdivisions on unsubdivided quarter sections, landowners are limited to four-acre parcels.

However, some landowners who were looking for larger parcels, or whose subdivision applications had been turned down, made applications for tree farms, which can be approved at a minimum 10-acre parcel size.

A county review found that 26 applications for tree farms have been approved since 2007, but only four were active when checked this year. Two had already been established before the subdivision was approved.

Suspiciously, a dozen of the tree farm properties were sold after subdivision and no tree operation was ever set up.

A report from Dale Freitag, the county’s manager of planning services, says it’s clear that tree farm applications have been “used as a method to get a subdivision where you may not qualify or would like a parcel larger than allowed under the first parcel out subdivision policy.”

To close the loophole, the county will require future applicants to present a business plan and proof that the operation has already been established to 50 per cent of its capacity. It must also have been in operation for at least three years before the application and the proposed lot can’t be less than 10 acres in size.

The rules also apply to those setting up similar operations to tree farms, such as you-pick farms, greenhouses, goat, poultry and potato farms, and greenhouses.

Council approved first reading of changes to the Municipal Development Plan on Thursday and it will go to a public hearing on Jan. 11 before second and third readings.

County Reeve Ken Wigmore said the changes probably won’t entirely close the loophole, but will certainly help.

“It’s all in the name of preserving agriculture,” he said.

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