The last time water rose in the North Alouette River and spilled over its banks, Rosemary Webster and her husband were asleep.
They woke up to a loud bang on their front door.
Mounties and the fire department were evacuating the neighbourhood along 224th Street past 132nd Avenue, a low-lying stretch of the Alouette Valley that’s prone to flooding.
The water gushed into Webster’s workshop and garage at the back of the property, into the crawl space and flooded out their septic tank.
She now fears the next persistent deluge will cause even more damage.
“Heaven help us all if we get a really big flood.”
The Websters and the Alouette Valley Association continue to blame a wall built by a farmer along 224th St. for diverting flood water that would usually wash back into the river, onto nearby properties.
The farmer, Hang Cho, is now hauling in soil on to his property, at 13261 and 13347 224th St.
The dump trucks carrying excavated material from several development sites in Maple Ridge have been rolling onto the properties for months.
A resident who followed one of the trucks claims he saw it haul fill off a government-funded social housing project on Brown Avenue.
The filling has been permitted by the Agricultural Land Commission, without a permit process, because it is considered a “farm use.”
Cho said he’s building a road to access another part of his farm, a project he estimates could take at least a year.
The fill now rises several hands above 224th St. and extends into the tree line to the banks of the North Alouette.
His neighbours call it “soil farming.”
“There are so many things wrong with this activity, from dumping material of an unknown quality near a salmon bearing river, to destroying good farmland, and endangering the surrounding properties during a flood by redirecting water,” said Dian Murrell, a neighbour and member of the Alouette Valley Association.
It has worked tirelessly to curb flooding in the valley. The association has an alert system that sounds a warning when waters rise, gauges that monitor the river level and volunteers who dislodge log jams.
They waited three years for the District of Maple Ridge to complete a hydrology study of the Alouette rivers flood plain.
The document, finally released last month, found that “raising or infilling of land” on the flood plain displaces water and relocates the flooding problem to other properties.
It recommended the district consider a strategy for flood management that ensures “new or upgraded flood protection structures do not adversely increase the overall flood hazard.”
The Alouette Valley Association has lobbied district council, MLA Michael Sather, MP Randy Kamp, written letters to the Agricultural Land Commission and province, to no avail.
The district issued a stop-work order against Cho in 2006, but hasn’t issued one since.
The “berm,” or wall, neighbours blame for diverting water was ordered removed in November 2006, but rebuilt in early 2007 and still stands.
The District of Maple Ridge, however, assures the neighbours it is keeping a close eye on Cho.
He applied for a soil deposit permit from the district in 2009, but staff are still waiting on a hydrology report. In the meantime, he’s being allowed to dump fill on his property for a road, with the blessing of the Agricultural Land Commission.
The property the soil’s being loaded on is up for sale for $1 million and being advertised online as a site in the Agricultural Land Reserve that has “the potential for a development.”
The website states there is no sign on the property, “by seller request.”
“Mr. Cho is a bonafide farmer in the community and is operating under the guidelines of the Agricultural Lands Commission and has been doing so the whole time,” said Maple Ridge’s director of planning Jane Pickering.
But even if the land commission approved the use, local government bylaws still apply.
Although neighbours allege the fill on Cho’s property has encroached into the 30 -metre setback required under Maple Ridge’s “water course protection” bylaw, the district’s been told by the Agricultural Land Commission he is operating within guidelines.
“If he operates within the regulations of the land commission, he doesn’t need [a permit] from us,” said Pickering.
“We are trying to work a bit in the middle with the land commission and the neighbours, but we have to respect what the land commission tells us. He is doing what he said he is going to do and if he has stepped outside of that, we talk to him and he rectifies it. I think the neighbourhood probably doesn’t see it that way.”
Bruce Hobbs, another neighbour, believes that in Cho’s situation, the land commission guidelines are “absolutely redundant.”
“The fact of the matter is – if you are going to put that much soil onto a property that’s next to a river, you need to do a hydrology study,” he said.
Councillors, including the mayor, have visited the site as the neighbours continue to call for action.
“To the untrained eye, it does seem like there’s a lot of fill going in there,” said Mayor Ernie Daykin.