(Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS)Sergio Alano of Golden Eagle Farm Group shows rocks in soil in a greenhouse on the former Pelton property, part of which is now proposed for ALR exclusion.

Golden Eagle farm pitches new Pelton property plan

No net gain for agriculture, say critics

Those opposed to taking the former Pelton property out of the Agricultural Land Reserve are not being swayed by the Golden Eagle Farm Group’s latest pitch.

Golden Eagle Farm Group, part of the Golden Eagle Group, a subsidiary of the Aquilini Investment Group, presented its plan to the public at an open house on Saturday at the site at the corner of Golden Ears Way and 203rd Street in Maple Ridge.

Rather than try to get the entire 202-acre parcel out of the ALR, it is proposing a 56-acre business park development, potentially with a film studio and hotel, and the remediation of the rest of the land to restore it to agriculture.

Golden Eagle would replace the 56 acres taken out of the ALR with a parcel of land the same size in Pitt Meadows, seven kilometers away near Sheridan Hill. It is productive farmland presently growing blueberries, but is not part of the ALR.

The plan is being opposed by those who defend farmland.

“I think that is the thin edge [of the wedge],” said Christian Cowley, of the Community Education on Environment and Development (CEED) Centre Society.

He thinks it could turn the area into an industrial park and grow over time.

Cowley was the chair of the city’s Agriculture Advisory Committee and previously he ran for a seat on council in part “to stop the rampant paving over of farmland for housing.” But he was not elected.

Golden Eagle is offering to assist in creating a farm hub on the property, which would help small farmers to process and market their products. Golden Eagle approached Cowley to get involved about six months ago, but he refused even though he’s been trying to get a farm hub in Maple Ridge for about five years.

Cowley said he’s not interested in any proposal that includes an ALR exclusion.

“What they are proposing is no net gain of farmland,” he said. “We need that land, not just for today, but for 200 years from now.

“We are going to get a food hub anyway,” he added.

Annette LeBox, a founding member of the Pitt Polder Preservation Society, said a lot of people are not happy with the proposal.

“That 56 acres is a foot in the door.”

She said the city has been eying the former Pelton property for years as an industrial site. Its exclusion from the ALR was refused by the Agricultural Land Commission in 2010. In 2013, the property was included on a list for possible removal from the ALR in a city report. In 2016, the Aquilini Investment Group approached the city with a plan to have the entire 202 acres excluded.

“It’s such a shortsighted view, in an era of climate change, to pave over your farmland,” said LeBox. “It’s too bad we have to go over this again and again.”

The land might be in the ALR, but according to Golden Eagle, most of it is not suitable for farming. The group says 78 per cent has been “significantly disturbed by the previous industrial seedling operation.”

Presently, there is one large greenhouse in operation on the site, and another smaller one. Numerous other greenhouses are empty, and there are concrete pads on the site, where construction of other greenhouses was started but not finished.

Golden Eagle will look at refurbishing some of the greenhouses.

“There’s no way we can do agriculture on that soil,” said Sergio Alano, who oversees agriculture operations for Golden Eagle, as he looked over the field.

He said it would cost millions of dollars to get the land back in production.

“We were there to listen – to hear community viewpoints on how to improve our proposal,” Jim Chu, spokesman for the Golden Eagle Farm Group, said after the open house.

He said 65 people registered as attending the event.

“People had a chance to see first-hand the damage to soil from the tree farm,” he added.

“We’ve got agrology reports that show the poor quality of the soil,” he said, adding there has been a lot of concrete and asphalt paving on the site, as well as the use of fabric covered with rocks around the trees.

Chu said the group received important feedback about the farm hub, the use of the site as a home for the Haney Farmer’s Market, and the development of an agriculture innovation centre.

He said Golden Eagle would donate land for production and marketing research, and has spoken with a post secondary institution in the region.

Chu said it is important to the company that the proposal be a net benefit to agriculture.

“We’re farmers – probably B.C.’s largest farmer by revenue.”

Cowley argued that offering 56 acres of non-ALR farmland to replace that property taken out, there is no net benefit, because the land to be included is already being used to grow blueberries.

Chu responded that there is no guarantee that will continue, unless the land is placed in the ALR.

The City of Maple Ridge will have a conversation about the balance between needing more industrial land and the demand for protecting farmland, said Mayor Nicole Read.

It’s “an important community dialogue,” she added. “At the end of the day, we know that [this] is a contentious issue.”

Read said the latest proposal from Golden Eagle is well thought out, and council will want to hear public feedback on it.

“There are some really good elements to it. We need to bring jobs closer to home,” she said, adding there is a dearth of industrial land in Maple Ridge.