Brian and Joan Conway have a good thing going.
The couple worked hard throughout their entire careers and took more than one chance to realize their dream retirement home at Park and Ninth streets in Nanaimo’s south end.
It’s not a sprawling house with a great room and massive cedar pillars guarding the front entrance.
It’s a modest but comfortable home on 2.5 acres with fir trees reaching skyward in the front yard, water features that Brian built, a grassy backyard with dappled sunlight and a carriage house that matches the main house. The two are connected by a flagstone path.
Roaming free in perfect harmony are almost 50 Khaki Campbell ducks and chickens of various varieties, along with the two family dogs.
Off to the side, in their own protective pen, are Archie, Betty and Veronica, the Conway’s turkeys.
“This is our retirement dream,” said Joan. “We’re not farmers, we certainly don’t consider ourselves farmers, but we’re growing into it. We’ve made a few mistakes at it, some expensive mistakes, but we learned from them. We’ve put a lot of effort into this and some days we like to just sit back and relax and watch the ducks and chickens.”
After 28 years living near Diver Lake, Brian, who worked as a trucker for Petro-Canada, and Joan moved to the more rural setting almost eight years ago. Prior to buying the house, it was a rental with a dubious reputation. The backyard was plugged with raspberry bushes so thick it took Brian weeks to get rid of them.
“We chose this location because of the rural setting,” said Brian. “And because we could afford it.”
That could change. Across Ninth Street lies two separate five acre properties, both formerly five-acre farms, divided in the early 1900s so miner’s could work the land and sustain their families.
Recently, a sign went up on the east property notifying all who look at it that a 43-house development will soon be going in. It’s at third reading status before city council. The five-acre farm on the opposite side of the street was sold recently, also for a development.
Last year, the Conway’s assessment increased $94,000. After requesting a re-assessment, it was knocked down to a $44,000 increase.
The uncertainty, says Brian, is unsettling.
“I’ve been told by the city that the street in front of my house is going to be widened, which will raise my assessment. Then they told me it was going to be a bus route, which will also increase my assessment. Across the street I’m told there will be 43 new houses, which will increase my assessment. The long and short of it is we’re afraid that we’re going to be taxed right off our property,” he said.
Bill Dawson, deputy assessor for BC Assessment, said provincial assessors are required to value the property at its highest and best use, with actual value being the market value of the fee simple interest. Any feature or service considered an asset comes into consideration when a person is buying or selling, including zoning.
“If a property is zoned for a higher use, zoned for subdivision potential, well, that’s a marketable asset that affects the market value,” said Dawson.
Current zoning suggests the Conway’s property could be subdivided into 10 lots, and has been assessed accordingly. They say they want to keep it as it is.
“There are avenues for property owners who have developable property that don’t wish to develop it to get out of that situation,” said Dawson.
Section 19(8) of B.C.’s Assessment Act outlines how individuals who are long-term residents can get some taxation relief by being defined as an eligible residential property. If the property has been a principle residence for 10 years, and if it’s less than five acres in size, then instead of it being valued at its highest best use, it is valued at its actual use, which in this case is a 2.5 acre farm acreage in the city.
The Conways say they gross about $3,500 a year worth of duck and chicken eggs. Based on their property that is used for agricultural purposes, they may have to gross $10,000 annually to receive farm status on the agricultural portion of their land. The rest of the land would remain in the higher assessment category.
“We did inquire to the city about farm status, and we did attend council meetings to voice our concerns, but it has been a frustrating exercise,” said Joan.
Tax deferral is also an option.
Coun. George Anderson, who says he always visits a property before voting on whether or not to rezone it, said he prefers to keep green spaces, though it’s difficult to tell property owners what they can and can’t do with their land.
“It’s a difficult situation that they’re in,” said Anderson. “What it says in the official community plan is those properties are prone to be developed, and that is the plan that staff and council are following. We have our urban containment boundaries and we’re trying to fill it and the only way we can provide efficient services is by continuing to densify.”
Anderson added that he believes the Conway’s concerns are valid and should be considered, and that people who farm on urban acreages, especially in advance of development in their area, should be accommodated.
With more development encroaching on former acreages in the city’s south end, the Conways say they want others who are feeling squeezed off their property to know their options.
“To be honest, I’m not crazy about the thought of looking at a bunch of houses across the street,” said Brian. “And I’m not convinced that all of these developments benefit the taxpayers. I think they end up costing us more in the long run. What I would like to see the city do is preserve some of these acreages for community gardens or like a mini breadbasket where people can learn about food, but it seems like the city is geared towards developers and not the interests of its citizens.”