Critics say a developer’s move to snap up more than 550 acres of Delta farmland for possible port use proves Port Metro Vancouver intends to take a much bigger bite out of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
Metro Vancouver directors lodged their concerns Wednesday about the options to purchase the ALR land obtained by Lamington Heights Investments, a firm affiliated with realtor Ron Emerson, who has confirmed the tentative $98-million land deal with five farmers.
“This is some of the very best farmland in the region,” regional planning and agriculture committee vice-chair Harold Steves said.
Developing it would be contrary to Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy, Delta’s zoning bylaws and its ALR designation, he said.
But none of those rules may matter, he said, because Port Metro Vancouver takes the position it can override the ALR and local zoning.
Steves said the developer clearly believes an arrangement is possible to sell the land to Port Metro Vancouver and remove it from the land reserve, otherwise he wouldn’t be poised to pay such a premium for the parcels.
“It’s pretty clear Mr. Emerson is not paying $185,000 per acre to grow blueberries,” he said.
The farm land is close to Deltaport, just outside the Tsawwassen First Nation’s treaty lands, which are themselves being partly developed for port expansion.
The deal is also lucrative for the farmers, who paid an average of $10,000 an acre for the land.
Steves predicts more battles are coming over deals to convert farmland to port-related industry from Delta and possibly also Barnston Island, where a failed 2006 bid to industrialize ALR land may be revisited.
He predicts the province’s support of port expansion under the Pacific Gateway strategy will be a major provincial election issue South of the Fraser.
“It’s not a done deal,” he said, adding a change of government could stop the conversion of farmland.
The option-to-purchase agreements were exposed by Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington, who accused the province of being complicit in the port-expansion agenda.
“This is the industrialization of agriculture on a grand scale,” she said.
Allan Baydala, Port Metro Vancouver’s chief financial officer, said the port is not working in concert with Emerson in the acquisition of the Delta farmland.
“We certainly know who he is and have had discussions with the proponents,” he said. “But we discuss many proposals with many proponents.”
Baydala said the port does not rule out using agricultural land to expand, but only if all other options are exhausted.
“We believe developing agricultural land is the last resort,” he said, adding the port has no plans to develop more at this time.
Port officials have previously said the rigid application of the ALR is problematic because industrial land has become increasingly scarce.
“This is a very important discussion and I think it’s long overdue,” Baydala said.
“We’ve seen different land uses pressing up against each other and we only have a limited supply of land here in the Lower Mainland.”
He said the port intends to work with various stakeholder groups to have a “thoughtful conversation” about how to resolve the challenges.
Steves argues the port has turned to farmland as an easy way to acquire more land, instead of using short-sea shipping to barge more containers upriver to terminals on existing industrial land.
Metro Vancouver has previously taken issue with the port’s quiet purchase in 2009 of a 200-acre Richmond farm near the Fraser River, which could easily be assimilated into a nearby port terminal.
The regional district argues the erosion of more agricultural land compromises the region’s future food security.
The transportation plank of Premier Christy Clark’s jobs strategy calls for billions of dollars in future investment by private firms to help leverage B.C.’s geographic position as a trade gateway to Asia.