A proposal to remove the former Pelton tree nursery from the farmland reserve symbolizes the larger issue of jobs for people in a growing Maple Ridge, said the mayor.
“The conversation that’s needed is not just a conversation about Pelton. The application around Pelton allows us to have a conversation that is badly needed in this community about job creation,” said Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read.
Maple Ridge will grow by at least another 40,000 by 2041.
“We have to keep jobs closer to home,” Read said. “We have to have a balance in this community.”
The proposal to remove 202 acres from the Agricultural Land Commission was back at council Monday as staff outlined options in how to deal with the proposal.
The Aquilini Investment Group wants to remove the land, which it recently purchased, formerly the site of the Pelton greenhouse operation, from the Agricultural Land Reserve, to develop into a business park.
The property is at a key location, 203rd Street and Golden Ears Way, and has twice before been sought for removal from the farmland reserve.
In 2004, city council decided not to forward an exclusion application to the land commission. In 2010, council forwarded the application to the Agricultural Land Commission, only to have it rejected.
Read said that the city needs to balance its residential growth with more industrial space.
“In order to attract good companies with living-wage jobs, we need to have land that’s close to the major transportation networks.”
That’s the Golden Ears Bridge, which connects to Hwy. 1, said Read.
“For me, this conversation is about raising awareness in the community.”
Council remains split on the issue.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re still discussing this,” said Coun. Kiersten Duncan.
She is frustrated that the issue comes down to choosing between farming and jobs.
“Agriculture is a booming business. Why don’t we ever talk about agricultural jobs? They’re just not in the conversation and doesn’t make sense.”
She wants it to remain farmland and said the community has been clear on the issue.
“It’s just so evident to me that this is good soil. I just don’t understand why we are having this discussion.”
Duncan said the city will be setting a precedent by supporting the application. Even discussing it and having a consultation shows the city is supporting it, she added.
Coun. Craig Speirs noted there’s still no formal application to exclude the property before council.
“I want to give due respect to the Aquilinis. I think they’re a powerhouse in this economy.”
But this is farmland, he added.
“Don’t even bother.”
He noted that many people from the rest of Metro Vancouver would work at any new jobs created in Maple Ridge.
Coun. Bob Masse, though, sided with the mayor. Agricultural jobs don’t pay much, he said.
“We have to have these discussions.”
Where will the money come from to pay for the city’s new recreation facilities? he asked.
Part of the removal proposal includes the company adding a greater amount of land that it already owns into the Agricultural Land Reserve.
But city planning director Christine Carter said staff at the land commission have said that applications shouldn’t include offers of adding some property into the land reserve in return for excluding the property sought for exclusion.
Aquilini vice-president Jim Chu wouldn’t give the locations of the properties that the company is proposing to include into the reserve, although they’re in either Pitt Meadows or Maple Ridge.
“We will guarantee that the land that will be traded will be farmed.”
It can be a condition of the application, Chu added.
It could be more than 1:1.
“We’ll see what kind of feedback we get in the community.”
In an Aug. 24 submission to the city, the Aquilini Investment Group said that the property could produce 3,300 jobs and $10 million yearly in property taxes to the city.
Read, though, said the numbers are unproven.
And additional revenue doesn’t mean property taxes will drop. That’s up to the council of the day to decide, she said.
“With that kind of revenue coming in, that pays for things that the city needs.”
Those numbers in the Aquilini submission are based on a study done by Site Economics for a report done for Port Metro Vancouver in 2015.
Aquilini Investment Group said there is not enough water for farming the site. Wells don’t provide enough water and there’s not enough capacity in the North Alouette River.
“Greenhouse growing is not sustainable in Maple Ridge,” said the submission.
There also is less sunshine in Maple Ridge than in Delta.
“Previous attempts to develop food crops at the nursery were all unsuccessful, despite considerable effort and capital investment.”
Farmer Matthew Laity, whose dairy farm is nearby, couldn’t confirm that, saying that he grows only hay and grass forage crops on his property nearby for his dairy cattle.
But he has enough water to produce the hay for his herd.
“Whatever falls from the sky waters my crop and there never seems to be a lack of that.”
A ‘hotel property’ and movie studio are also part of the proposal.
“There’s a strong possibility we can do that,” Chu said.
“I think if the community supports this … we would be under an obligation to deliver it.”
He said the location is the best place for employment lands because it’s close to transit and roads.
“I don’t think it’s a tough proposal if the community understands the benefits of job creation and the benefits for agriculture. But people should listen to the full proposal, not just a portion of it.”
He said he looks forward to hearing what people would like to see on the property if it is excluded from the farm reserve.
Council told the Aquilini Investment Group to run its own consultation on the proposal and include the results when it files its formal exclusion application with the city.
Council can then forward the application to the land commission or kill the proposal outright by not forwarding it.