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More flexibility for on-farm businesses

Woolwich councillors this week approved plans to provide more options to farmers looking to operate businesses on agricultural land in the township. [Joe Merlihan / The Observer]

Already relaxing its rules governing on-farm businesses, Woolwich made even more concessions following public input on its plans. This week, councillors adopted changes to the township’s agricultural policies, loosening them up a bit more themselves.

Changes to the township’s official plan and agricultural zoning bylaw widen the scope of uses available to farmers looking to supplement their incomes with businesses such as shops on their properties.

The review was launched to bring the township in line with new policies set by the province. It’s also a chance to bring into compliance a significant number of illegal and non-conforming business being operated in Woolwich.

Having originally proposed to put a cap on the number of employees working at farm-based businesses, township planners dropped that idea. A proposal to limit on-farm businesses to parcels larger than 25 acres was dropped to 15 acres, also in response to public feedback.

For those farms under 15 acres in size, there are more options for operating home-based businesses such as landscape contracting, manager of planning Jeremy Vink told councillors meeting March 10.

“We’re providing them with more flexibility.”

The changes allow for a wider range of industrial or commercial uses on agricultural land. The industrial or commercial portion of the property will be subject to the same taxes as comparable operations in the urban areas, along with the same development charges and building code requirements, he explained.

On-farm businesses have to remain as an accessory use to farming, however, with total space not to exceed two per cent of the farm parcel up to a maximum of 2.5 acres.

In consulting with the public, a sticking point remained over the township’s plan to discourage two-storey buildings on farm parcels. Vink said the plan was to keep buildings looking farm-like rather than industrial, while also limiting the amount of space dedicated to the on-farm businesses. A second storey essentially doubles the floor space of an operation without increasing its footprint, in essence skirting the two per cent limitation.

“It’s supposed to look like it’s part of the farm operation,” said Vink of a building used for commercial purposes.

The proposal under discussion Tuesday night would allow a mezzanine area – for storage, perhaps – of no more than 10 per cent of the ground-floor space. He noted, however, that there was some pushback from the community in favour of more room.

Township resident Isaac Weber, who had addressed council at a public meeting in December, said the policy should allow for more flexibility with mezzanines and second floors.

“I don’t think we need a lot of full two-storey buildings,” he said, adding some additional options for the likes of office and lunchroom spaces, for instance, would be appreciated.

Councillors appeared to sympathize with that argument.

“Who cares if you put a second storey in part of it?” asked Coun. Murray Martin, supported by Coun. Larry Shantz.

With council moving in that direction, Vink suggested allowing a second storey of up to 30 per cent of the main floor space, an idea quickly adopted.

But Vink also suggested the site-plan approval process could be used to prevent buildings from looking industrial rather than agricultural. That’s especially important if the building is to be turned back into farming use if the business is no longer needed, he said.

“We’re trying to balance that out,” said Vink of the struggle between keeping operations farm-like and allowing for more options.

In approving the changes, councillors also agreed to a provision requiring on-farm operations to apply annually for a certificate of occupancy, required to run a business in the township. That would help ensure compliance, avoiding the “creep” of expansion beyond the two-per-cent limit, for example, which can happen over time, said Vink.

“It’s keeping everyone in check.”

Compliance is an issue, as there are many farm-based businesses operating outside of what’s currently allowed. From the type and size of business to buildings that aren’t up to code, concerns abound, he noted, adding the changes to the rules are being made in part to bring such operations into legal standing.

With that in mind, there may be more inspections by planning or building staff.

Coun. Patrick Merlihan asked whether staff expected a “flood of people” looking to bring their existing operations into compliance?

“I do expect in the next year or two to be dealing with issues,” replied Vink. “In fact, the flood has already started.”

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