A divide over farmland in Maple Ridge

Farmers concerned about removal proposal by Aquilini Investment Group.

The neighbours are giving a cool reception to a proposal to remove 202 acres of the former Pelton Reforestation tree nursery from the Agricultural Land Reserve for a business park or agro-industrial area.

“Making that land industrial does concern me about how that would affect surrounding farms,” said Matthew Laity, who runs a 100-head historic dairy farm, kitty-corner from the property on 128th Avenue.

Maple Ridge council had its first look at the proposal on Monday through a June 1 letter from Aquilini Investment Group vice-president Jim Chu.

“We see this land as having the potential to become a successful job-creation area and we are committed to creating a development plan which will substantially benefit the residents and business of Maple Ridge,” Chu said in the letter.

The company bought the property last fall and says the land would require “extensive remediation” to restore the soil.

The Agricultural Land Commission rejected a prior exclusion application for the property in 2010, saying the land had “significant agricultural capability,” despite its previous use as a tree nursery and greenhouse operation.

“We believe the application is substantially different from the 2010 application,” Chu said Wednesday.

Aquilini Investment Group could buy land elsewhere and add that to the Agricultural Land Reserve and ensure that land will be farmed as a means of compensating for the other to be removed. Chu added that the company would consider anything that “meets the goal of Maple Ridge’s community plan, which is to increase employment lands.

“I think what’s really important is that the community gives us input on what they’d like to see that would help guide the final use.”

With its location next to Golden Ears Way and the Golden Ears Bridge, “the investment in transportation by the public is being under utilized,” Chu said.

Plus, it’s close to city services and the land is “flat and square.”

The Laity farm, surrounded on three sides by suburbs, has been in the family since it was founded in 1879.

Last year, representatives from the Aquilini group offered to buy one of the farm’s parcels, 34 acres adjacent to the Pelton property on 132nd Avenue and 210th Street.

Laity added that soil quality on the properties that surround the subject property is “good agricultural land.

“I’m concerned even for my farm if that [Pelton lands] were to go. I’m not for it. It would increase pressure on our farm, for sure.”

Next door, at the Hampton heritage farm that dates back to the same era, Lil Hampton says her two sons plan on continuing to farm and isn’t sure how a possible business park would affect her property.

“We have no plans on selling right now.”

Council heard, though, at its Monday meeting, that at the staff level, the ALC says that nothing has changed from 2010 and that if the 202 acres are removed, it could set a precedent.

“I hope that the ALC doesn’t have a closed mind on an application that will improve Maple Ridge in terms of jobs for residents and economic benefits to lower taxes,” Chu said.

He points out that the company, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks, is not only a developer but also farms and has some of the largest blueberry and cranberry farms in the world. The company runs large farms in Pitt Meadows.

An earlier proposal to take out some of the former Pelton land at that location was refused by Maple Ridge council in 2004.

As for affecting nearby existing farms, Chu said, “I think whatever we do has to be designed in a way to protect our neighbours and their existing operations.”

Coun. Craig Speirs said that land commission chairman Frank Leonard told a recent meeting of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association that the commission doesn’t want to revisit previous decisions.

Speirs said he’d support any agricultural-related uses for the property, which now contains greenhouses and roads on a portion of it, such as a becoming a transportation and packaging hub for local farms.

“The attractiveness of local produce for the consumer is not going to go away.”

But he opposes removing the land for industrial purposes.

“I don’t want to waste time rehashing things. It’s just a waste of time. I don’t want to have to fights over and over again. It’s not a fun way to spend our time.

“For me, coming across Golden Ears Bridge … that whole pastoral scene is gold,” Speirs said.

Mayor Nicole Read said Monday that she wants the public to be able to comment and that the application is a good chance to explain the needs for more employment lands for the city.

Council has asked staff to write a report on the proposal.

Former NDP MLA Michael Sather said he was surprised to see the application. He says the soil on the property can be rehabilitated for growing crops.

Heather Laity, who runs the Laity Pumpkin Patch farm, just east of Aquilini property, is also concerned and said her family just wants to continue to farm.

“If you let us farm down here, it will stay a farming community for another generation.”

 

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