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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Acreages produce Kids

Acreage Development and their contribution to sustainable rural life.

This article is a continuation of previous articles on maintaining sustainable growth in rural counties. The premise is that if we can increase the number of kids in the county, the county will sustain itself. In this article we will discuss the pros and cons of allowing the subdivision of small parcels of land to develop country residential acreages.

Some counties are becoming less receptive of acreage subdivision applications. The feeling is that acreage development should not be allowed as this fragments farmland. I think most people agree that farmland is a precious commodity that should not be readily carved up.

On the other hand we also have to consider if the counties can survive with just an agricultural component. Without additional human resources in close proximity, will schools and other social infrastructure remain available to the farm community?
In some areas it is already more cost effective and less stressful, especially on young kids, to home school or use distance learning.

If we consider how settlement progressed throughout the prairies, it was generally one section at a time. Each of these sections or even quarter sections had a homestead on it. Look at all the abandoned homesteads. These used to be family homes. It was these families that supported the hamlets and other social infrastructure. As these homesteads were abandoned, the survival of the hamlets came into question.

To add more acreage development would not necessarily add to fragmentation but just restore the balance.           

From a fragmentation point of view, it might not make sense to carve out five or six acreages out of one quarter-section of good farmland. But to develop a parcel out of the corner of every fourth or fifth quarter will not have that much impact on the farmability of the quarter.

Developing triangles rather than rectangles may further mitigate the fragmentation. Farm equipment can turn 45-degree corners much easier then 90-degree corners. Yes, this still leaves thin slivers of land in the acute corners of the divided parcel but acreage owners can use these areas much more efficiently then large farm corporations. In most cases, taking a three to six acre triangle out of the corner will have little impact on the balance of the quarter.
In areas where permanent pivot irrigation exists, several parcels could be taken out of the waste area not reachable by the pivot or these areas could be subdivided and developed into hobby farms or intensive pursuits like vegetable production for farmer’s markets. There is an increasing demand for small holdings for market produce production, equestrian pursuits and other legitimate agricultural business pursuits that would not fit on three acre parcels but don’t need a full quarter.
When we consider tax revenue, in many cases, the taxes paid on just the three acre residential parcel generates more return to the county than the 157 acres remaining as farmland. Then also, consider that many of the residential parcels have fairly large improvements on them. These 3 or 4-acre parcels complete with improvements often pay more taxes than a number of sections of farmland.

Of course, tax revenue means nothing to the county if the county needs to spend most of it servicing the tax generator. Please consider how little it costs the county to service these three-acre parcels.
There is really no cost of grading the road in front of the parcel, which would have to be graded anyway and a few day trips per acreage, has substantially less impact on the road than most of the other traffic the roadway sees.
There is the cost of doing the assessment and mailing out the tax form. From net revenue to the county, acreages are impossible to beat.

An added benefit is that this tax revenue will continue to accrue to the county as long as the parcel is not reabsorbed into the quarter. The revenue will never go to another jurisdiction.
Because of the high tax revenue stream that acreage developments provide to the county, and the spin-of taxes that these acreages allow, the overall tax rate in the county can remain much lower, which in turn allows the taxes on the agricultural land to remain low.
When discussing acreage development, another concern that is sometimes brought into the discussion is whether acreage owners are desirable citizens.
These displaced city folk don’t meet county standards.
They have junky places.
They’re fire hazards.
And you may have heard many more reasons. While there is some truth to some of these concerns, they represent a very small portion of acreage owners. Even if these concerns exist, land-use bylaws may not be the proper place to address these concerns. There are other bylaws that regulate many of these concerns.

This also follows with the size and type of house that is permitted in different jurisdictions. Does it really make sense to set the minimum size of a house so large that mobile homes are excluded? If you don’t want mobiles, just say so. Many of our homes today are way too large to be efficient. If the plan is to age in place, 800 square feet is more than enough. It is also enough for a starter home for a young family. A well designed home can be added onto if need be.
It might be best if land-use bylaws are just based on the most pertinent details of land use. Other limitation, such as animal units and junky premises are better dealt with through enforcement bylaws. This makes the subdivision and development procedures much simpler.
If you meet the intent of the basic land-use bylaws, staff can deal with both subdivision and issuance of the development permit in short order. It does not have to be political and go before full council. Council meetings will be much shorter. By simply allowing an appeal process, adjacent landowners can be protected.
One of the criteria for subdividing a parcel in the past has been its lack of value as good farmland. This has lead to many issues when it comes to water-well and septic treatment locations. If the land is mostly swampland, it was often allowed to be subdivided. After all, it can’t be farmed. In most cases it is not going to have land area that is suitable for soils-based septic systems.
In order to properly treat septic effluent, soils must be well aerated and be able to let the effluent drain down through theses aerated soils to achieve proper treatment before they reach the ground water. The Alberta Private Sewage System Standard of Practice (SoP) requires a minimum of five feet of good soil below the infiltration trenches before there is an encounter with restrictive layers or saturated soils, so we need a seven-foot depth of good soils for primary septic treatment. By using an advanced treatment unit or secondary treatment, this distance can be reduced to between three and five feet.
If you dispose of effluent into a swamp, you greatly increase the risk of groundwater contamination. You also increase the chance of runoff and smelly algae blooms in the surrounding wetlands. This becomes a very serious situation when you develop a series of septic systems in a high-density acreage subdivision that contain or is surrounded by swampland.
There are many parcels that are more suitable for residential use than agricultural use but swamps and sloughs do not fit in that category unless the parcel includes an acre or two of high land.

If the lands are not easy to cultivate due to physical barriers, for example, if 3 to 10 acres are cut off from the main area due to a road, stream or other obstacle, they may be perfectly suited for a residential acreage or a small farm.
If the lands are treed as in recreation land, they may be better left as treed and a house built on a small clearing. As a rule, it is not that difficult to develop a septic system that meets the intent of the Alberta Private Sewage System Standard of Practice on a treed parcel and it is usually better for the environment to maintain as many trees as possible.

Another thought to consider is the actual survivability of the farm. In the past, as agriculture has gone through its up and downs, quite a number of farms remained solvent due to the ability to generate cash flow through the sale of one or two acreages. This of course is not a sustainable business model but neither is BSE.
One thing acreages do well is to produce kids. Many young families want to move to the country to raise their kids for many different reasons. They do not want to move to hamlets or town-sites. It is these kids that will lead to the sustainability of the county.
Two to five acre parcels are the most efficient way to increase the amount of kids in the county. They generate a high rate of tax revenue for the county. They cost the county almost nothing to build or maintain.

We hope to publish some additional articles in this series about townsites and industrial areas. Please use the subscribe button to receive notifications.

The author Bob Boersema is a senior private sewage system designer, specializing in small lots and difficult soils inventories. He lives in the south central part of Alberta.
            “Every home deserves a treatment system that meets the intent of the SoP.”
Bob is also a building designer and contractor with a perchance for energy efficiency. Not only does he understand the SoP but has a good working knowledge of all building codes.
            Bob may be contacted at or www.

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