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This Land is Our Land: BC’s Density Dilemma

Cate Pedersen

Developed along essential waterways, the Lower Mainland has long been in the business of transporting goods across the country and to world markets—and the business is growing and in need of space. At the same time, the region’s wealth of arable land has also made it an agricultural epicentre for Canada—a vital commodity—and the demand for food supply is growing too. As industry and population expand, the jostle for limited space on land surrounded on all sides by water and mountains is reaching a peak. For some, this is an opportunity to set a precedent for how communities work together to solve the issues of urban and rural congestion.

Over forty years ago, the government of BC made a choice to protect what they knew to be a provincial treasure and birthed the Land Commission Act on April 18, 1973. The commission was appointed to defend agricultural boundaries and the areas where food is grown by placing land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The ALR’s mandate was to keep land used for agriculture in the hands of food producers. Most of that land is located in the Lower Mainland—more specifically within the Fraser River Delta. This relatively small expanse of land is also expected to house 60 per cent of BC’s population and meet the needs of a vast variety of industries besides agriculture. To put the size of the land in perspective, the Fraser River Delta would take up only one third of Toronto, Canada.

A License to Farm

Mayor Brodie 1 (2)
Mayor Malcolm Brodie of Richmond, BC

Mayor Malcolm Brodie, the second longest-serving mayor in Richmond, BC, is taking a stand on the side of agriculture. In 2009, Brodie and the council noticed a potential land-use storm brewing and they are feeling the brunt of those buffeting winds now. A parcel of farmland in East Richmond was purchased by Port Metro Vancouver and kept, until the latest lease runs out in 2018, as insurance in case the port ran short of space. The land has been allowed to keep its agriculture brand, but there is a new iron in the fire, and it’s got Port Metro Vancouver emblazoned across it.

“The land is designated for agriculture in Richmond’s Official Community Plan, and is in the ALR,” Brodie stated, “but the port maintains it is not bound by city and provincial designations. Publicly, the port has declared they would abide by the mandate of the ALR, but for how long?”

Brodie said the fear isn’t just that one parcel of land be taken out of the ALR, but if one accepts the premise that industrial land is more expensive than ag land, then what would stop companies buying up all the ag land and converting it to industrial. “There needs to be clear boundaries to protect agricultural land. The extent to which industry can encroach upon ag land needs to be a major policy area.” The mayor expressed the importance that any discussion about land use in Richmond should be made public and is concerned that decisions could fundamentally alter, if not destroy, whole sections of the city.

Brodie spoke with passion of Richmond’s close connection to the land. “Two industries have fueled the city, one is fishing which has gone into a decline, and the other is agriculture. We are the largest grower of cranberries in North America by community and a good part of our city is in the ALR. This is about our heritage. We’ve been saying the whole time that there is other industrial land available, but this land should stay in agriculture. We are keeping a close eye on it and being as public as we can and hope that reason will prevail.”

The Voice of Industry

Robin Silvester, President & CEO at Port Metro Vancouver
Robin Silvester, President & CEO at Port Metro Vancouver

Reason was also in the voice of Robin Silvester, CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, as he described the dire shortage of industrial land and agreed more discussion is needed to find balance. Port Metro Vancouver is the third largest port in North America and is a vital trade conduit, shipping containers of food and goods to and from the rest of the world. “The fact is container traffic is expected to triple by 2030, and we are running out of industrial land,” Silvester said.

“I came to Port Metro Vancouver a year after the merger [of the three port authorities]; the economy was on a downturn and my early work was creating a coherent strategy for the newly merged organization. The mandate of the port is to enable Canadian trade while ensuring the protection of the environment and considering the needs of the community. Vancouver is the gateway for exporting all of our natural resources, whether grain, potash or coal, or forest products. We have grown in the last five years by 30 million tonnes, which is equal to the amount of cargo handled by the Port of Montreal—the second biggest port in Canada. We see opportunities to grow by the same amount over the next five years and growth in the agriculture and fertilizer sectors have offset the decline seen in coal. We are one of the biggest grain exporters in the world and handle 20 million tonnes of grain a year—and pulses and lentils and specialty products are increasing too. It was estimated that we ship enough agriculture product through the port to feed 250 million people a year.”

Silvester may see the potential in the Richmond land as valuable industrial space, but concedes the need to protect agriculture land too. Silvester, who has fond memories of growing up in a small farming hamlet in England, and appreciates the importance of local food and agriculture jobs, spends many weekends at farmers markets enjoying the bounty that BC has to offer. “I agree that is it critical to preserve food grown locally. I find the issues around land use in the Lower Mainland fascinating, and how we move forward to protect everything that we want. My frustration with the land use debate is that it’s polarized and intentionally polarizing. We all want local food and to protect agricultural land, but we also want jobs for our children and we need as many opportunities for the future as possible.”

Silvester described what he believes to be a perfect win-win scenario during the construction of Dayhu’s warehouses in Boundary Bay. The almost 900,000 square feet container facilities allow sorting and shipping of container goods which would have been previously sent to Alberta for redistribution. The property is adjacent to farmland. Representatives from Dayhu and the port spoke with the cranberry farmer next door and discovered that they could pipe the collected rainwater from the roofs of the warehouses across to the cranberry farms which increased the farmer’s yield substantially.

“We have a fantastic region, and we are privileged to live and work here, and we have a growing population. The critical debate is how we best use this finite land base to achieve everything we want. The right conversation isn’t happening,” Silvester expressed, “and the time to have that conversation is running out. I passionately believe it can be achieved when all the right voices are at the table having a constructive conversation. This really is the single defining issue for this region and how we resolve the challenges we are facing, whether it’s affordable housing, economy and production of local food.”

Silvester believes the ALR have been tremendously successful at protecting agriculture land. “But there are those of us who wish the province had created an industrial land reserve at the same time.”

There has been around a two per cent reduction in the agricultural land base in BC, but over 30 per cent industrial land loss. “I think the weakest is the industrial land,” said Silvester. “We are concerned that there are only 1000 acres of trade enabling land remaining in the Lower Mainland, and that land will be consumed in the next 10 years. The zoning takes place at a municipal level, and the tendency has been to move industrial into residential to provide housing, as they are not permitted to rezone agricultural land—it’s all about people, which is logical. But this is causing pressure on the agricultural land.”

Mayor Brodie of Richmond announced: “I will be the first to sing their praises if the port decides to preserve the [parcel of Richmond] land for agriculture. I don’t mind saying these are good guys, and there is always a solution. There have been successful resolutions over land use for the [Vancouver] airport, and we had our differences, but we were able to see where each side was coming from and we managed to accomplish good things. I believe in a balance of land use.”

Food Sovereignty Reigns

Dr. Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair, Food Security & Environment; Associate Professor, UFV (photo credit: UFV/Darren McDonald)
Dr. Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair, Food Security & Environment; Associate Professor, UFV (photo credit: UFV/Darren McDonald)

Dr. Lenore Newman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, and also holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment. Newman stated, “We are seeing increasing pressure on a very limited land base. The decisions we are making now on this land will determine whether there is any farming or green space at all, or whether it’s going to be one city from Hope to the water.”

But Newman can see that the limited land places all concerned parties in a difficult spot. “I have some sympathy for the port because they are being pressured by residential use and we do need to have port facilities, but in the case of the land parcel in Richmond, the port is trying to build on the best farmland and I find it a little galling.”

The decision to buy up farmland and option it while it is still in the ALR, with no intent to farm it, is a poor one in Dr. Newman’s mind. “We need to get more creative like offshore facilities or inland ports. I feel the port has made it clear that they don’t value farmland and see us getting food from elsewhere. As a food theorist, I don’t see that working. There is no guarantee that we will have the variety and quality of food we want if we are depending on exports. If we are totally reliant on food elsewhere, we are trading away a good industry that employs a lot of people and it’s a high quality industry, but first and foremost we are putting ourselves at the whims of a global market and that is a little dangerous when you’re dealing with food. Having the food grown here, we have food sovereignty where we have control over the food system.”

Newman called on the community at large to make their voices heard. “On a bigger level, we have to decide what type of cities we want to live in and if we care about food, we all have to fight this fight. If you develop farmland, you lose that food provenance. This land supports a lot of people.”

Newman feels that the City of Abbotsford makes a commendable effort to protect its farmland. “Abbotsford has a strong urban containment boundary and agriculture is the number one industry in town. Most exclusions here have been reasonably justifiable and they have done a good job of keeping the land in large blocks. Every time something moves further down in the Delta mouth, it puts more pressure on us. We made a decision in this province by creating the ALR and investing in agriculture. If we are going to change our mind, we must think carefully about the implications, especially in the Delta mouth. I feel strongly that the public should decide what a wise use of the land is.”

City in the Country

Mayor Henry Braun of Abbotsford, BC
Mayor Henry Braun of Abbotsford, BC

Just like the city he leads, Mayor Henry Braun of Abbotsford is a blend of city and country, and expressed a desire to facilitate growth of industry while protecting as much farmland as possible. This was perfectly epitomized when he explained that prior to arriving at his office at City Hall that morning, he had helped deliver two Hereford calves on his ranch, and was eager to rush back to see how they were doing. The Mayor may have grown up on farms, but took quite a different career path. Before his stint in politics, Braun was the owner and CEO of Canada’s largest privately-held railway and transit construction company. The Abbotsford-based Pacific Northern Rail Corp was key in the building of much of the sky train and railways throughout Metro Vancouver, which also service the ports. Braun sold his company and retired in 2002.

“I am not against taking land out of the ALR; there has to be exceptions,” Braun admitted, “but, there has to be a good case for it. At the end of the day, people need employment to maintain our standard of living. The only way I know to find balance is for people to sit down across the table from each other and talk and find a solution that solves both problems. If there’s an issue, let’s get together and talk about it.”

“We are obligated as local government to follow the rules and regulations prescribed by the ALC,” Braun explained. “But the port is regulated under federal law which trumps provincial law and provincial law trumps municipal law, so council cannot make a city bylaw that contravenes provincial or federal law in any area.”

Urban meets rural meets industrial
Urban meets rural meets industrial

If the federal government chooses to order ALR land to be used for industrial development, Braun said that it really is between the province and federal government. Braun opined that political rhetoric often gets in the way: “The well is sometimes poisoned to the point that it’s almost impossible to achieve anything unless all of the players change the way we do business. I saw that throughout my business career too. [As a province], we need to make some wise changes and we do need to look ahead. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy the same things I enjoyed growing up, and that means protecting air, water and land, but we have to do it responsibly. We impact the environment no matter what we do.”

It is obvious that all parties feel strongly that there needs to be a regional planning conversation. It may come to the point when fertile land like the Fraser Valley is placed under immense strain to feed the planet, but how we use our land will impact all industries.

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