The Agricultural Land Commission will be asked to reconsider its decision to remove a large swath of farmland in Pitt Meadows from the provincial reserve.
An appeal has been launched by city residents opposed to plans to develop the North Lougheed corridor, stretching from Harris Road to the Meadow Gardens Golf Course.
At the crux of the appeal is a familial connection between Pitt Meadows director of operations Kim Grout and the city’s former fire chief, Bill Park, who owns 36.7 hectares in the area.
Grout’s grandmother, Hazel Anderson, and Park’s father, Gordon, were siblings, making Grout and Park first cousins once removed.
Opponents of the exclusion application, which removed protection for 33.1 hectares (81 acres) of undeveloped land, believe the familial connection should have been disclosed by the city.
“In any business, disclosure is imperative,” said Sandie Banni, a realtor who spearheaded a petition against the city’s plans. “The apparent lack of disclosure in this case is especially concerning as the topic was so controversial and important. It is my opinion that this whole matter should be reviewed at the highest level.”
The city hopes that developing the entire site will facilitate the construction of the North Lougheed Connector, a road that’s needed to access the commercial strip. The city points to farmers and regional traffic as the main impetus behind the 3.6-kilometre road, which would stretch from Harris to Golden Ears Way. The bill will most likely be footed by developers.
Pitt Meadows Mayor Deb Walters bristled at the accusations that the city was hiding Grout’s relationship with one of the landowners.
“Simply speaking, Kim Grout was just doing her job,” said Walters, adding that, if anything, the application should have been difficult for Grout to pitch since her grandmother’s ashes are spread on the land in question.
The city, however, asked for a legal opinion to make sure the entire process was done properly.
The city’s lawyer assured council that there was no conflict. The lawyer told council, “the allegation was entirely misconceived.”
Walters agrees with that.
“Ms. Grout has no pecuniary interests in this matter at all and has no financial interest in the outcome.”
Grout echoed Walter’s statement, adding she does not benefit from the property being excluded from the Agricultural Land Reserve.
“The family assets were divvied up two generations ago,” said Grout. “Who my second and third cousins are really don’t influence the role I have as staff. It’s all decisions based on council.”
The Agricultural Land Commission also doesn’t view Grout’s connection to Park as a conflict.
“She was filing stuff on behalf of the City of Pitt Meadows,” said Tony Pellett, a regional planner with the commission who worked on the file. “Her relation to that is incidental. It wouldn’t affect anything we are doing.”
Pellett also doubts the request for the commission to reconsider the exclusion will pass.
Under the Agricultural Land Reserve Act, a request for reconsideration can be submitted if evidence not available at the time of the original decision has become available, or all or part of the original decision was based on evidence that wrong or false.
“If their only new information is Kim Grout is related, then that’s not going to get very far,” Pellett added.
Developing the North Lougheed strip will take years.
The Agricultural Land Commission granted the exclusion with four caveats, including further protection of farmland in other parts of the city, a required change in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, and beginning construction of the North Lougheed Connector within three years of the ALC’s acceptance of a traffic-calming plan for Old Dewdney Trunk Road.
The main reason for allowing the exclusion is the pressing need for the connector road. In its decision, the land commission acknowledged that traffic volumes on Old Dewdney Trunk have increased and continue to rise, to around 11,000 vehicles per day in 2012 from a low of 7,000 vehicles in 1993.
“Enabling farming to operate effectively in a substantial area of Pitt Meadows outweighs the need to preserve farmland in a much smaller area,” noted the commission in its ruling.
Five of the properties in the exclusion area, however, have fields in production, growing corn for silage, forage and blueberries.
Each of the properties have different owners, including Park – the city’s former fire chief – veterinarian George Robertson, the Meadows Gardens Golf Course and Pitt Meadows Shopping Centres Ltd. (a subsidiary of SmartCentres, a big box store developer).
SmartCentres plans to develop most of the 50.9 hectares (125 acres) stretch, in conjunction with a city plan that pitches a mix of uses including residential and commercial components.