A large swath of farmland in Pitt Meadows has been removed from the provincially protected agricultural land reserve paving the way for another mall.
The Agricultural Land Commission approved the exclusion of 33 hectares (81 acres) of land in the North Lougheed corridor last week, with four conditions.
“They have given us the green light,” said an ecstatic Mayor Deb Walters.
“There is still considerable work to be done in a rather short period of time but their support is the first step in moving forward.”
The City of Pitt Meadows applied for exclusion last October despite protest from residents and a petition against it.
Council support for the exclusion application however was not unanimous. Three councillors – Bruce Bell, Janis Elkerton and Dave Murray – voted against it and still remain vocally opposed.
The conditions for approval include 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 North Lougheed Connector has been pitched by the city as a way to take traffic off Old Dewdney Trunk.
“We all agree we need to find a way to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic coming from the east that aggravates farmers and commuters alike,” said Walters.
“As a council, we are firm in our commitment to diversify the tax base, provide local jobs and preserve our agricultural roots. This decision helps support all of those things.”
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 Dewney 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 substantial area of Pitt Meadows outweighs the need to preserve farmland in a much smaller area,” notes the commission.
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 the city’s former fire chief Bill Park, 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.
“SmartCentres is very pleased with the ALC’s decision on the city’s application to exclude the North Lougheed Corridor lands,” said Sandra Kaiser, vice-president of corporate affairs.
“We look forward to working with the city on the required approvals to allow us to proceed with a development application.”
The next step for the city is planning traffic-calming measures for Old Dewney Trunk and working with TransLink to draw up a timeline for the connector as well as an interchange or overpass at Harris Road and Lougheed Highway.
The city also has to apply to Metro vancouver to get the land included into its urban boundary.
“It is truly a good news story,” Walters added. “But it’s not a slam dunk yet.”
As for covenants on the remaining agricultural land, the city believes they are already in place since Pitt Meadows official community plan, a document that guides development, designated the land along the connector as “agricultural”
“It is really hard to put covenants on property that doesn’t belong to us,” said Walters, adding the city is getting legal clarification on the issue.
“However the OCP designates the land as agricultural. That in itself is a covenant from what we understand, so that might be enough.”
The city’s plan to develop the area however has many critics, among them environmentalists and nearby residents who lament the loss of arable land for big box stores.
Walters reminds the critics that the request for the North Lougheed connector came from farmers.
“There will always be people who aren’t happy with the decision,” she said. “But you have to remember, there was a petition from people who want lower taxes. Lower taxes means we have to look at commercial, industrial and those types of things. We have to look at what’s best for our community in the long term.”
Under the conditions for exclusion, Pitt Meadows could return city-owned land to the Agricultural Land Reserve. Walters says there is a property in the south of the city, behind Wildwood Crescent, that fits the criteria.
People opposed to the exclusion application were shocked that protection has now been removed.
Former New Democrat MLA Michael Sather called the decision “political”, one that’s influenced by the B.C. Liberals return to power.
“The ALC has caved completely. I don’t know why.” he said.
Coun. Dave Murray, one of the trio on council who opposed the application, believes the development and proposed road makes no sense.
Without an overpass at Harris Road, all they are doing is putting more traffic into an area that is already congested, he said.
“It is really sad,” he added.
“I remember standing right in the spot where this is going to go and this is has got to be some of the most pastoral, most beautiful, scenic farmland in all of British Columbia. They are going to give this up for what? For a big box store? These are not family-sustaining jobs.”
Coun. Janis Elkerton meanwhile believes the exclusion paves the way for more development on farmland, not just in Pitt Meadows but throughout Metro Vancouver.
“Encroachment into valuable farmland will set a precedent and increase land speculation by developers which will ultimately be detrimental to farming in Pitt Meadows and the region,” she said.
“I don’t see this as helping farming at all.”
The Pitt Polder Preservation Society, a local environmental organization, intends to ask the commission to reconsider the decision.
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.
The decision mentions that only 20 people were recorded as attending a public hearing on the exclusion application, although there were many more people present.
“This removal is going to put huge pressure on farmland in the north [of the city],” said Diana Williams, president of the Pitt Polder Preservation Society.
“The covenants weren’t worth the paper they were written on. They take a little nibble of farmland here and another there and it keeps growing and growing.”