Abbotsford eyes farmland for industrial growth

How much land can Abbotsford propose to remove from the Agricultural Land Reserve before its “city in the country” slogan no longer fits?

In advance of a public hearing Monday night, opponents of a city-led proposal to remove 115 parcels from the ALR to make way for industrial growth are questioning council’s commitment to food security.

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“The model we’re using to anticipate future agriculture land needs is based on the past,” said environmentalist John Vissers, who intends to speak against the proposal. “Climate change is going to shape our economy in unexpected ways.”

If passed, a proposal to remove 283 hectares (or 2.8 square kilometres) in two different parts of Abbotsford will go to the Agricultural Land Commission for approval. It’s not the first time the commission has been asked to weigh the value of agricultural land against industrial needs, and with a recent report showing Metro Vancouver has the lowest availability of industrial land in North America, it’s unlikely to be the last.

In Richmond and Delta, Port of Vancouver’s plans to expand on farmland have led to an ongoing debate. Near Surrey, Barnston Island’s agricultural lands have long been eyed for industrial expansion.

While Abbotsford is outside Metro Vancouver, the city’s available industrial land is similarly dwindling. In 2005, council successfully requested the removal of 178.5 hectares (or 1.7 square kilometres) of ALR land near the Abbotsford Airport for industrial use.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said the city identified two new areas for removal to provide “employment lands” for a growing population. Projections show Abbotsford will run out of industrial land in about four or five years, and large parcels are already difficult to find. Discussions with Molson-Coors ended when the company required 10 hectares for a new brewery, which was eventually sited in Chilliwack.

About 75 per cent of Abbotsford is in the ALR, said Braun. While council has “drawn a hard line around our urban area,” pledging not to consider farmland for residential or commercial development, there are fewer options for industry.

One of the areas under consideration is near the Abbotsford Airport, while the other is in the Bradner area, adjacent to the existing Gloucester industrial park on the Abbotsford-Langley boundary, where soil quality is considered substandard. The properties represent about half of one per cent of Abbotsford’s total farmland.

“That can hardly be described as destroying the ALR,” said Braun.

But Bradner poultry farmer Jillian Azanza said any removal sends a signal that the ALR is negotiable. Her family farm is near the properties proposed for exclusion.

“There’s already speculation on farmland here. If this goes through, developers will be rubbing their hands together,” she said.

Azanza rejected the argument that land in Bradner is not suitable for farming. Chicken barns, greenhouses and silviculture are not reliant on Class 1 farmland, she said.

“I drove around the land that was excluded (from the ALR) in 2005, and I saw lots of unused land, truck parking and RV parking. If council is asking residential and commercial to densify, and farmers have to intensify their operations, I think they need to ask the same of industry.”

Industrial densification is possible, but it’s also very expensive, said Tsur Somerville, director of the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate. Companies are more likely to take their operations to Calgary, Seattle, Portland or Prince Rupert than build two-storey warehouses.

“I think the pressure (on limited industrial land) is greatest closer to Vancouver. Before you took land out in Abbotsford, I think you’d consider taking it out in Richmond or Surrey,” he said.

But Somerville said economics alone cannot settle the question of what is more important: food lands or employment lands.

“It depends on how you value certain things, including open spaces and food production.”

Somerville called food security a “red herring” in the debate, pointing out that much of the food we eat is imported, while major local crops such as blueberries are grown for export.

“Whenever you’re trying to allocate scarce resources like land, there are two options. You can let the market take over, or you can move toward a regulatory framework,” he explained. While the ALR provides the latter, it doesn’t function effectively when there is a “biting away at the edges.”

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