North Lougheed plans hit wall

A divided Pitt Meadows council has put the next step for developing a 50 hectare area along Lougheed Highway on hold.

The above concept chosen by Pitt Meadows council

The above concept chosen by Pitt Meadows council

Pitt Meadows’ plan to spur development on a large tract of undeveloped farmland along Lougheed Highway hit a roadblock Tuesday as a split council defeated plans to move the project to the next stage.

At a committee meeting Tuesday, council failed to give first and second reading to a bylaw that would allow the city to amend its official community plan.

The 3-3 split also meant the city can’t amend its regional context statement, a requirement for any land use changes by Metro Vancouver.

Coun. Gwen O’Connell tried to save the process the city has been through thus far by proposing council defer voting until staff return with more information about the costs to build an interchange at Harris Road and Lougheed Highway.

“I want to know what the whole interchange is going to look like,” said O’Connell.

The city’s plans for the 50-hectare area, located northeast of the highway and Harris Road, has been a controversial issue for years. The land is mostly owned by SmartCentres, a land developer whose tenants include Walmart, Payless, Costco, Staples and Indigo. A concept plan adopted by council  envisions mixed employment, a land-use designation that would allow everything from big box stores, a hotel or conference centre, showrooms or a business park.

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. City staff and several councillors still point to farmers and regional traffic as the main impetus behind the 3.6-kilometre road.

It would stretch from Harris Rd. to Golden Ears Way.

SmartCentres can begin construction on an area along the highway 600 feet deep, but needs a much larger space to accommodate its big-box tenants and parking.

It’s why the city applied to the provincial Agricultural Land Commission to exclude an additional 33.1 hectares (81 acres) from the reserve.

The exclusion was granted in 2013, 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.

Opponents of the city’s plans, however, condemned council for pushing ahead, citing the loss of farmland, as well as habitat for sandhill cranes and the potential for taxpayers to be saddled with a bill in the millions for a road and resulting interchange.

In January, council received a 600-name petition against North Lougheed development.

O’Connell’s proposal to defer voting was also defeated.

“To me, this is not about a farm. That land isn’t being farmed,” said O’Connell.

A staff report last year noted that five of the properties in the North Lougheed exclusion area have fields in production, growing corn for silage, forage and blueberries.

“It’s unfortunate,” O’Connell said of the bylaw being defeated.

It would help create jobs, she said.

“This absolutely is one of the saddest things that has happened on all my years on council.”

Mayor Deb Walters, who has supported developing the area, told council the decision goes against the city’s strategic plan to bring more jobs to Pitt Meadows.

Citing numbers provided by SmartCentres, Walters said a mall development could create 6,700 jobs.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would say that they don’t want this,” she added.

“We have heard from taxpayers that have signed a petition that they want us to lower taxes. This would create a tax base that would help relieve our residential taxes.”

Coun. Tracy Miyashita was also disappointed that the entire process was now stymied.

“We haven’t ever talked about Target or big box stores,” Miyashita said when her colleagues referred to the low-paying jobs.

“I supported this project because I wanted something for my kid to look forward to.”

Three councillors, however, believe taxpayers don’t know the true costs of development and stress that a commercial development won’t be a tax windfall for the city. Taxes from a Meadowtown Centre, a development across the highway, total about one million annually.

They also don’t want taxpayers to foot the bill for the connector, which is expected to cost $17.5 million just to construct.

The transportation plan estimates the city will have to contribute at least $6 million for the connector.

Add on an interchange at Harris Rd. and Lougheed Hwy. and the city’s portion of the $52 million project balloons to $18.5 million.

Coun. Bruce Bell refused to support deferral or the motion on the agenda.

“I am supportive of shutting this project down,” he said.

Coun. Dave Murray told his colleagues to move ahead with development without commitment from the province to build an interchange is like “putting the cart before the horse.”

“These are not family sustaining jobs that are going to keep people living and working and playing in this community,” said Murray, banging the table as he spoke.

“We will not get tax dollars back from big box stores, all they will do is kill the local economy and small stores will have a hard time.”