A decades-long battle over a key piece of Delta farmland ended Friday as the Metro Vancouver board approved the huge Southlands development despite fears it sets a risky regional precedent.
Delta council's deal with developers allows 950 homes to be built but 80 per cent of the historic Spetifore farm in Tsawwassen will be put under municipal control for agriculture, conservation and public use.
The 93-31 weighted vote at the Metro board means the regional growth strategy will be amended to redraw part of the urban containment boundary and change the regional land use designation from agricultural to general urban and conservation/recreation. A two-thirds majority vote was required.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves called it a "very dangerous precedent" that sends the signal to other agricultural land speculators that they will be rewarded if they let farmland deteriorate and then wait for the local council to agree to a similar deal.
"We can expect this to happen over and over and over again," Steves warned.
The region's two biggest cities were divided on the idea – Vancouver councillors opposed the plan based on precedent, while Surrey councillors supported it.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said it preserves a huge area for agriculture and public use and a $9-million contribution by developers Century Group will improve drainage to restore productivity of the now-unused farmland.
She also noted forest covering about one-sixth of the Southlands that could otherwise be cleared for farming will also be protected under the plan's conservation designation.
Jackson called it a unique situation, adding most other large pieces of agricultural land in the region that might be developed are in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), unlike the Southlands.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan was one of the Metro directors who said he wavered before deciding to support the proposal.
"Ultimately, it's going to restore farming onto this piece of land," Corrigan said.
Coquitlam Coun. Mae Reid backed the "elegant compromise."
Langley directors were also on board, calling Metro directors' support a breath of fresh air after a recent legal battle with the region over whether Langley Township has authority to develop farmland.
The decision went against a Metro staff recommendation to reject the Southlands deal.
The staff report cautioned approval could fuel farmland speculation by indicating it may be a winning formula to propose dense development on part of a property while offering the rest up to the local city.
While Metro staff called it an "innovative" development, they said there wasn't sufficient reason to compromise the goals in the regional growth strategy on protecting farmland, containing urban development and ensuring growth that does happen is well served by transit.
The Southlands develop will allow some development (in grey areas) while protecting other portions for agriculture, conservation and public use.