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Australian Rural Planning
A View From The Edge
Issues in Rural and Metropolitan Fringe Planning

Ian Sinclair,
Principal Consultant, Edge Land Planning
Rural and Environmental Planning Consultants

As published in New Planner, The Magazine of the Planning Profession in NSW
Number 41, December 1999
Lot Sizes for Agriculture
Is there a minimum lot size for agriculture? This is the Holy Grail for rural planners and one which we grapple with all of the time. I am indebted to officers of NSW Agriculture's Environmental Planning and Management sub-program for a discussion on the issue, which has provided the background material for this article.
The short answer to the question is no, there is not an ideal minimum lot size for agriculture. There are a number of issues that have to be considered when trying to determine a minimum lot size.
We must distinguish between the terms 'viable' and 'sustainable' in order to discuss the issue properly. Viability, when applied to agricultural production really only applies to the economic return. However, sustainability brings in social and environmental issues as well as the economic ones. A 2 ha market garden may make a good economic return and therefore be viable or economically sustainable, but also may cause rural land use conflict and increase the nutrient load in the surrounding streams and therefore is not is not socially and environmentally sustainable.
Agriculture is diverse in its land needs - intensive uses do not require the same amount of land as an extensive use to be sustainable. Market gardening can be sustainable on 4 - 10 ha whilst you need in the order of 40 to 80 ha for a dairy farm.
We also have to look at the issue of the current fragmented nature of agricultural land and the problems that causes for the economic, social and environmental future of agriculture. Most of the smaller lots (concessional lots mainly of around 2 ha) are used for rural residential use, although some are used for agriculture.
Agricultural land can be used for another, often more intensive form of agriculture. Just because one type of farming is not making sufficient money is not reason enough to subdivide it into smaller, often residential uses which can cause problems.
There are a number of other issues to be considered which are to do with the availability of resources. The ability to harvest water - either from a dam or a river - is important as is the amount of high class agricultural land. The preservation of native vegetation and biodiversity as well as the need to avoid land degradation and pollution of surrounding waterways are all issues that have to be considered.
There are a number of responses to the issue, which are very complex and cannot be dealt with in detail here.
One answer is to say that there should be no minimum lot size and that the size should be determined by the use to which the land is put. This follows on from the point made above about the diversity of land needs. This was tried by Wollondilly Shire Council in its review of rural lands in the Agriculture zone. There were a number of reasons why it did not work. When we were considering the draft LEP, we were anticipating that their would be a range of lot sizes (around 4 - 8 ha). What we did not anticipate was the speculative nature of the subdivision and the difficulty in defining the term sustainable agriculture - we relied on the use making a return on the investment when we should have required a gross farm profit. 90% of the lots created were 2 ha, not the anticipated 4 - 8 ha.
The experience at Wollondilly meant that we had to determine a lot size that would be based on some data, rather than merely a best guess, which is, as far as I can see where the current "standard" of 40 ha came from. As part of the LEP we undertook a detailed land use survey and lot size analysis which was cross referenced to come up with land use by lot size data. This was used to arrive at a minimum of 20 ha, which was based on the predominant use as agriculture and also where rural residential uses were not present. It is important to also recognise that the main objective of the zone is for agriculture and also that there is a large number of lots less than 20 ha which can be converted to agricultural uses, thereby allowing for agriculture to be practiced on a range of lot sizes.
Another way of achieving this end is to break the nexus between the subdivision and the dwelling house provisions. This is problematical because it is assumed in Australia, that if there is subdivision, you will have a dwelling right attached to it.
So, the basic lesson to be learnt is to use a larger lot size rather than a smaller one and base the analysis on good and meaningful data. It is also important to allow for the preservation of the resource: agricultural land in larger, not smaller parcels. This will allow the farmer to avoid conflicts with neighbours through the mitigating of impacts, manage native vegetation, water quality/quantity and biodiversity to achieve sustainable agriculture.
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