Plan is to remove 56 acres that used to contain greenhouses. (THE NEWS/files)

Business park plans dusted off for northwest Maple Ridge

Aquilini Group has scaled back its request for ALR exclusion

The owners of the former Pelton tree nursery on 203rd Street have scaled back the amount of land they want to remove from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Golden Eagle Farm Group, part of the Aquilini Group, is now proposing to remove 56 acres from the ALR, instead of 202 acres, at 203rd Street and Golden Ears Way.

The group wants to develop those 56 acres into a business park, which would include a film studio and hotel, while using the remaining 146 acres for either field or greenhouse farming.

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Other features of the proposal include a food hub and an agricultural innovation centre, the latter in partnership with an unnamed university and what it says will result in more than 900 local jobs.

“I think people really need to think about what makes sense for agriculture,” said Aquilini Group vice-president Jim Chu.

But farmland advocate Annette Lebox said Monday the proposal is just more of what was proposed in 2016, when Aquilini first outlined its plans.

“There’s nothing new in this application,” said Lebox. “It’s just a sneaky way of getting land out of the ALR.”

An agricultural food distribution hub could be set up now under current land uses, she pointed out.

She accepts, though, that Aquilini has no further ALR land exclusions in mind.

But, “It’s going to set the precedent for all these ‘me-too’ applications.”

Other developers, she added, will be asking: “‘Why him and not us?'”

Chu said the company wants to hear what the public says before proceeding to the next step – filing an application with the City of Maple Ridge seeking to remove land from the farm reserve. City council can either vote to reject that outright or forward it on to the ALC.

Part of the proposal involves adding 56 acres that Aquilini already owns in Pitt Meadows, at the north end of Neaves Road near the Pitt River, into the Agricultural Land Reserve. The quality of that land, according to the company, is better than the 56 acres that is being proposed for removal. That land used to contain greenhouses, buildings and roads.

“We think we can increase agricultural output on this site by rehabilitating other parts of the site,” Chu said.

He said the plan is unique and doesn’t see it leading to more farmland removals.

“We’re farmers. Other developers may try different things, but they can’t guarantee that they will carry through with the farming,” Chu said. “We’re not actively looking to buy farm property to convert to non-ALR use.”

If approved by council, the application will go to the land commission.

“We’re saying, ‘What’s wrong with this proposal? Where does it not improve agriculture?'”

The property is on the city’s long-term list for industrial development.

Golden Eagle Farm Group is hosting a meeting on the topic next Saturday, Feb. 3, from 10 a.m. to noon at Golden Ears Way and 203rd Street, (12950 – 203rd St.).

Eileen Dwillies, executive-director with the Haney Farmers Market Society, said the board of the society has approved in principle a donation of land at that location for use as a food distribution hub.

It also welcomes the storage space and the option of having a farmer’s market during mid week at that location, though the farmer’s market also would continue every Saturday at Memorial Peace Park in downtown Maple Ridge.

In the long-term, it would be nice for the farmers’ market society to have a permanent home, she added.

“That would be just a lovely dream.”

But it remains to be confirmed how the farmers’ market society would be able to get the land in perpetuity.