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Metro Vancouver wants port banned from using ALR farmland

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves is credited with helping found the Agricultural Land Reserve and is the vice-chair of Metro Vancouver
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves is credited with helping found the Agricultural Land Reserve and is the vice-chair of Metro Vancouver's regional planning and agriculture committee.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

Metro Vancouver will ask the federal government to ban the port from encroaching on agricultural land as it seeks to amass more industrial land for port-related expansion.

It's the latest volley to be fired in a running battle between regional politicians and Port Metro Vancouver over preservation of scarce farmland.

The resolution approved by Metro's regional planning committee Friday calls on federal Transportation Minister Denis Lebel to direct the port, which is drawing up its own land-use plan, not to allow non-agricultural uses on port-controlled properties in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

As a federal Crown corporation, it's widely believed the port could – if push came to shove – supercede both the Agricultural Land Commission and Metro's regional plan and develop farmland it has already acquired or other ALR land it may eventually buy.

"To go around with a heavy stick and say we can overrule all of you and we don't care what you think – that's dead wrong," said Richmond Coun. Harold Steves.

He and other Metro directors agree the port should put aside those powers and agree to abide by the decisions of the ALC.

"That way, if they wanted to get land out of the Agricultural Land Reserve, they'd have to go through the same process as everybody else," Steves said.

Deltaport's proposed Terminal 2 includes a planned four-fold expansion of container shipping capacity that's expected to put intense pressure on for additional land for container handling and warehousing.

The port has already bought up some farmland in east Richmond, although it's still being leased to farmers.

And developers with an eye to the port's long-term needs have options to buy large swaths of ALR land in Delta and on Barnston Island, betting it can be profitably industrialized.

The mere possibility sends ALR land soaring in price and adds to the expectation it will be used for purposes other than agriculture.

Steves said while the federal government has legal authority to override the province or local governments, it's not clear whether those powers flow to a Crown corporation with an appointed, unelected board.

Richmond has already warned it may take Port Metro Vancouver to court to settle the issue, he added.

"If we won, fine," Steves said. "If we lost, I think it would be such a major public issue that the public would want to know why these authorities have such powers."

Duncan Wilson, Port Metro Vancouver vice-president for corporate social responsibility, said the port understands the concerns of local cities and also wants to protect farmland.

"We're not looking to develop the agricultural land, what we're looking to do is create more industrial land to take pressure off agricultural land," he said.

Wilson said the port is working with Metro and others to foster the protection and enhancement of industrial land, which has also been steadily converted to other more lucrative purposes.

Encouraging industry to densify and make more efficient use of the land it's on is one strategy.

"The industrial land that's left in the Lower Mainland is insufficient for the future of our economy," he said.

Wilson said the farmland the port has already bought is a long-term "emergency relief valve" it hopes won't need to be used.

"Our strong preference is to develop on non-agricultural land."

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