Pitt Meadows’ plan to remove a large tract of farmland from the agricultural reserve was resoundingly panned on Monday by residents who rather see the fields preserved.
Council was handed a petition, against the exclusion application, signed by 157 people, while others at the public hearing accused the city of going against the wishes of its residents.
“You have responsibility to the residents who live here and give you our tax dollars and we are opposed to this,” said Sandie Banni, who drew a loud cheer and applause from the audience at the end of her passionate plea.
Banni pointed out that council’s decision to submit an exclusion application for 33.1 hectares (81 acres) was not supported by Pitt Meadows residents. They overwhelmingly favoured a development concept that set aside 16 hectares (39.5 acres) for farming or other agricultural uses, like a land trust or food processing facility.
“This is a sham,” said Banni.
“The last public meeting was a sham because you don’t listen to the residents. You are ignoring us and we are wasting our time here tonight because you are going to do what you want. The land will be gone and there will be nothing left for your grandchildren.”
Council support for the application, though, has not been unanimous.
In July, three councillors voted against the plan that would see all 50.9 hectares (125 acres) of land developed.
Mayor Deb Walters cast the deciding vote in favour of developing the entire site because it would facilitate the construction of the North Lougheed Connector, a road that’s needed to access the commercial strip. The city points to farmers as the main impetus behind the 3.6 kilometre road, which would stretch from Harris to Golden Ears Way.
Of the land being considered for development, only around 17.5 hectares (43 acres) are zoned highway commercial.
The remaining 33.1 hectares (81 acres) would have to be removed from the provincial agricultural land reserve.
Five of the properties in the proposed exclusion area 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).
Park spoke in support of the exclusion application, saying development would allow the city to broaden its tax base.
Park noted there were hundreds of acres of farmland in Pitt Meadows lying fallow. He said in the past five years, the value of farmland in Pitt Meadows has dropped by 20 to 25 per cent.
“Three years ago, there was such a glut of rental land in Pitt Meadows that I could not recover enough money in rent … to pay the taxes. I was basically subsidizing farmers to farm my land,” he added.
“If farmland is so valuable, how come people aren’t rushing out there to get this land that’s available. Let’s make a decision on what’s best for Pitt Meadows, not what’s the election platform for a political party combating the next provincial and federal election. Let’s help cure two of our city’s problems, tax revenue other than single family and traffic congestion off Lougheed and Old Dewdney.”
Although there is little public support for the exclusion application, the city’s agricultural advisory committee, comprised of farmers, has endorsed it.
Joe Bachmann, who sits on the committee, said the two biggest complaints from farmers in Pitt Meadows are traffic along Old Dewdney and drainage.
He noted the traffic problem is so bad that some farmers have had to hire flag people to get their equipment to fields, while others work at night.
“We are hoping the road will be a hard line for development,” said Bachmann.
“It is very difficult for our committee to support a project that is going to have a negative effect on farmers. It is our hope that if we give up a little bit we can help the majority of farmers with traffic and drainage improvements.”
SmartCentres, a developer with clients that include Walmart, promised thousands of jobs if the development proceeds.
“We believe that concept C will bring much needed investment to the City of Pitt Meadows through significant job creation and economic growth, while delivering the necessary infrastructure,” said Dave Major, with SmartCentres, which has assembled a large tract of farmland in the area.
“The plan calls for upwards of 600,000 square feet of retail commercial space and upwards of 2.5 million square feet of mixed employment uses, which in turn would generate 1,200 new retail jobs and … over 9,000 new office and industrial jobs. The potential yearly tax revenue … is very significant and should not be overlooked.”
But one resident who works for a large retailer was skeptical of SmartCentres promises.
“Retail is not in a good position and it won’t be for quite a while,” said Laura Lymer.
“I am telling you that the economy cannot support that. It doesn’t matter that you want to create jobs here, they will fail.”
Pitt Meadows residents were not the only ones who spoke against the application.
Joe Foy of the Western Wilderness Committee and Donna Passmore of the Farmland Defense League also urged council to rethink their plans to develop on “precious” and “scarce” farmland.
Peter Jongbloed, vice-president of the Pitt Polder Preservation Society, suggested development would only intensify speculation on surrounding farmland.
“We are ordinary citizens with no financial stake in any of these proceedings. We are up against a corporation and land owners who stand to make a great deal of money in the short term, if this North Lougheed land were to be excluded from the ALR,” he said.
“We prefer to think in the long term and are deeply concerned about our region’s ability to feed itself.”
Minutes from the public hearing will be compiled by city staff, approved by council and eventually forwarded to the Agricultural Land Commission.