The woes of rezoning agricultural land

15 Sep 2009

The uses to which land zoned for agricultural purposes may – or may not – be put has caused considerable controversy, especially in those areas such as Stellenbosch and Franschhoek where agricultural land is deemed to be part of historically significant heritage areas.

"It seems there will be an ongoing battle between developers who will always want a portion of the more attractive agricultural estates for residential and/or commercial purposes and those who are determined that, no matter how short of land for development an area is, all major building activity will be kept within the municipal boundaries, resulting in increasing densification there," says Tony Clarke, MD of Rawson Properties.

Those who adopt the latter approach, says Clarke, are possibly out of step with many of the European countries, which have actively encouraged the restoration and extension of old farm buildings (especially those on major roads) for residential and office use in the belief that (a) the cities are already overcrowded and the more people can be encouraged to decentralise into the country, the more their lifestyles and health will improve, and (b) First World agriculture is struggling and alternate uses need to be found for its land.

Obviously, Clarke says, any moves of this kind have to be subject to careful conservation and aesthetic guidelines – but he has the impression that this has been no problem in countries like the UK, France and Germany.

Discussing these matters, Clarke drew attention to a recent Supreme Court judgement (in the case of Stalwo vs Wary Holdings and Another) which appeared to do away with the need to get the Minister of Agriculture's approval for subdivision and rezoning.

"In effect, the ruling seemed to make all SA land subject to municipal jurisdiction and exempt from the Minister's approvals – but a subsequent appeal to the Constitutional Court upheld the original understanding of the Act, making it once again essential to get ministerial consent for subdivision of agricultural land. There do, however, appear to be a number of specific exclusions to what is deemed to be agricultural land which could be seen as loopholes in the Act. Although these are unlikely to be of much use at present because the Surveyor-General is sticking to the policy that written confirmation from the Minister is essential to alter the status of any agricultural land."

No doubt, said Clarke, further challenges to this will materialise in time.

"As a conservationist, I have to ask myself if the agricultural land is sacrosanct and if preserving the status quo is in the best interests of the poorer people living there. In my view, the refusal to subdivide and rezone too often benefits the wealthy who enjoy a privileged lifestyle in the area but not the poor who could earn better, more regular wages in other spheres of activity if more agricultural land was freed up for development."

For more information contact Tony Clarke on 021 658 7100 or send an email.

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