An Oak River-area farmer has won his battle to subdivide his farmland from its yardsite — and his victory may make it easier for others trying to keep the yard lights on in rural Manitoba.
Jon Crowson is a retired Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives farm production adviser who has lived in a modest 1950s farm home in the RM of Blanshard since 1982. He sought to sever 13.5 acres of land, including the existing yardsite and some land that is currently farmed. Although not planning to move, he said he eventually wants to be able to sell the farmland but keep the yardsite if the opportunity arose.
His municipality didn’t object, but Manitoba Agriculture and Rural Initiatives officials did, arguing it was a loss of productive farmland.
MAFRI was amenable if the severance was limited to 7.81 acres. However, Crowson needed the larger parcel to accommodate a sewage ejector, and keep an Exemption Certificate, which requires a minimum of 10 acres and that the ejector must be operated at least 200 feet from property lines.
Waste water management
Losing the certificate would have forced the Crowsons to install some other on-site waste water system at a cost of $6,000 to $15,000.
Crowson said money wasn’t his main concern. Rather, he took issue with MAFRI’s position that the small amount of farmland in question would be “lost” to agriculture if was attached to the yardsite parcel.
“What else would those extra acres be used for, if not for agriculture, in this part of Manitoba? … There is a very limited demand for strip malls or parking lots in this vicinity,” he quipped in his appeal to the Municipal Board, which ruled in his favour last month.
MAFRI’s intent seemed to be to protect land for commodity production, while ignoring potential smaller-scale agricultural enterprises, he argued.
Having spent a portion of his career working with small-scale farmers, Crowson said he’s seen the potential for these as bona fide and productive ag enterprises.
The current policy, definitions and process used by MAFRI make the process problematic, and create divisions between those who want to live in rural areas and those worried about loss of farmland.
If a yardsite is no longer needed as part of a farming operation it should be in the public interest to facilitate transfer from “agricultural” to “rural residential” status, he said.
“People are the key ingredient of a rural community,” he said. “Maybe we should make it easier, rather than make it difficult to the point where people just walk away from an existing yardsite and abandon it.”
Brent Fortune, reeve of Blanshard, who also sits on the Midwest Planning District, said the subdivision was not in contravention of the RM’s development plan and he didn’t understand why MAFRI was concerned.
With just three subdivisions in five years (affecting just 32 acres out of a total 142,000), it’s not as though a large amount of land was disappearing, said Fortune, adding Crowson’s land would likely still be farmed.
Fortune also noted the RM has lost half of its population since the 1970s, and said Crowson’s yardsite might very well appeal to another family one day wanting to live in the countryside.
“If we can maintain these small subdivisions, we might have a few young families start to move back in someday,” he said. “Everything adds up.”
MAFRI officials told the Municipal Board in November their concern wasn’t the small amount of farmland involved in Crowson’s case, but the cumulative impact that the 600 to 700 subdivision applications coming forward annually province-wide are having on farmland.
Manitoba has only recently begun tracking the impact on farmland, but estimates about 10,000 acres per year are disappearing to developments annually.
Some say the province isn’t doing enough to protect farmland, said MAFRI Minister Stan Struthers, adding he defends his department’s stance to protect cropland this way.
“Our job in the process is to make sure that productive land isn’t wasted,” he said. “We take that seriously. That is our role.”
That requires careful planning, he said.
“I’ve seen too many cases where we haven’t put that forethought into decisions,” said Struthers. “If we say yes to something, we’ll have people saying you didn’t do enough to protect that farmland. If we say no to somebody, they say it’s a roadblock and that MAFRI is inflexible.”
He said he supports keeping yardlights on but also considering the longer-term implications of subdivision approvals.
“We don’t want to be rubber stamping applications that come forward that then require us to follow with water and sewer infrastructure, local school infrastructure, another recreation centre, and a public library if there is already those infrastructure amenities available elsewhere in the province,” he said.
If there are ways to improve the process, he’s ready to listen, he added.
The Association of Manitoba Municipalities is deeply concerned about this whole issue, said its president Doug Dobrowolski.
Members complain they are encountering a combative approach from MAFRI, he said.
“Especially on the western side of the province where they’re trying to get people to come there to these old abandoned yards and maybe have to subdivide a little more for the sewage ejector,” said Dobrowolski.
“MAFRI is objecting to everything, saying they’re taking prime ag land out of production.”
Municipal leaders also don’t want scattered development that creates new demands for infrastructure, but they do want more people living rurally, he said, adding his association would like MAFRI to take a more co-operative approach.
“I’ve always said agriculture is protecting agriculture to the detriment of agriculture.”
In its Dec. 1 ruling, the Municipal Board allowed Crowson to subdivide the entire 13.5 acres, saying it disagreed with MAFRI with respect to not allowing cropland to accommodate the ejector setback requirements. It said a last-minute “compromise sketch” of 10 acres the department had proposed would ultimately save less than two acres of cropland.
Crowson said he was pleased with the ruling, but disappointed the land-versus-people issue wasn’t raised.
“But this is a wider social issue, and they were dealing with the regulations of the development plan,” he said.
He said he sees implications in the ruling, both for municipalities and for anyone else thinking about severing a yardsite from surrounding farmland.
“I think this likely affects a good number of rural residential subdivision applications,” he said. “I think in a large majority of these cases those ejectors will be on the edge of existing defined yardsites.”