Sturgeon County council needs to change its land-use rules around agriculture to accommodate the future of agribusiness, says the chair of a county task force.
County council received the final report of the agribusiness and agritourism review task force during its April 12 meeting.
Established March 9, 2021, the task force is made up of seven county residents, Coun. Deanna Stang, and Mayor Alanna Hnatiw, and has been asked to review best practices for agribusiness and agritourism and provide recommendations for the county.
Sturgeon County has about 194,000 hectares of agricultural land as well as excellent soils and growing conditions, the task force found. Basic crop and animal production has been a key contributor to the county’s economy for generations.
“The nature of agriculture is changing,” task force chair Cathy Gilbert told council, with county farms moving beyond basic crop and animal production and into school field trips, food tastings, and other value-added ventures.
The task force found the county’s regulations have not kept pace with this change to encourage investment and manage the consequences of these new agricultural ventures. Residents have concerns about noise, parking, hours of operations, and enforcement, as well as the need to both diversify farming and to protect traditional agricultural practices.
Gilbert called on council to add two new land uses to the land-use bylaw.
One, “event venue,” would refer to lands used for limited-term commercial activities such as weddings, markets, and farm suppers. These venues may involve food, entertainment, and parking, but will not involve rec-centres, bed and breakfasts, or home-based businesses.
The other is “diversified agriculture,” which refers to agricultural uses that bring more traffic than usual to a farm site. This would include on-farm sales, value-added processing, and farm-life experiences but exclude event venues, home-based businesses, and cannabis sales/production.
The task force recommended that event venues be a discretionary use (i.e. allowed with a permit and additional consideration by the development officer) on agricultural lands, with diversified agriculture made a permitted use (allowed with a permit) on such lands. It also called for a new AG-2 district to support more intensive and diverse agricultural uses as permitted uses. These changes should be done in parallel with an education campaign to explain the nature of diversified agriculture to people.
Many farms are already hosting events or engaged in diverse agriculture and will need to rezone land or get new permits to comply with these changes, Gilbert noted. Instead of grandfathering them in as exceptions, she recommended administration waive any municipal fees they incurred this year to bring their operations into compliance with the new law.
Hnatiw noted that this task force addressed complex issues, including country living, local food production, and the conservation of agricultural land.
“This is just the beginning of the work,” she said, and council now has to consider bylaws to implement the task force’s recommendations.
Council is set to consider how to implement the task force’s recommendations at its May 3 meeting.
The task force’s report is available at bit.ly/3KDTg65.