Imagine, as a kid, you’ve waited patiently for five months for Christmas to finally arrive.
On the eve of, you stay up all night fighting sleep, counting the seconds and minutes, doing everything in your power to stay awake.
And then, boom. Santa bails.
Save for jingle bells and presents, that’s roughly how it went down Monday night at Richmond City Hall after another marathon meeting – this time a public hearing – ended with no pay-off for the 150-or-so weary souls who’d packed council chambers to vent their feelings on proposals that include setting house size limits on farmland at 10,764-square-feet.
At a few minutes shy of 1 a.m. on Tuesday, and after almost six hours of pleas from both sides, city council simply ran out of legal time to discuss, decide and, ultimately, vote on the controversial issue, which has pitted urban residents and food security advocates against farmers and landowners.
And, after around 16 hours of heated debate over three meetings in as many weeks, the result was, you guessed it, another meeting; Wednesday, May 17, back at city hall, where every one of the dozens who spoke at Monday night’s public hearing can get another three minutes each at the mic to refresh city council’s memories.
At issue, as reported earlier in the Richmond News, is a proposal to limit house sizes on AG1 (agricultural land) to 1,000-square-metres (10,764-square-feet), if the land it’s being built on is at least half an acre in size. Anything less than half an acre would be subject to 500-square-metres (5,382 square feet), which was city’s staff’s original recommendation for all lot sizes last month and is in line with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture’s guidelines.
The moves were prompted earlier this year after a proliferation of applications to build gigantic “mega homes” on Richmond’s farmland.
Previously, Couns. Harold Steves and Carol Day were the only two on council opposed to the increased sizes — both want smaller footprints on the farmland.
The maximum setback distances from the road are also being proposed for an increase, from 60 metres to 75.
Also on the table is a bylaw which sets out criteria for rezoning, should a farmer or landowner want to build beyond the proposed 1,000-square-metre limit.
The city’s planning manager, Terry Crowe, said previously that cultural and intergenerational reasons would be taken into consideration for a bigger house size, although a need to accommodate more workers — coupled with an acceptable farm plan — would need to be demonstrated.
As with previous meetings, on Monday night, opinions expressed to council, with very few exceptions, were split down the middle; one half begging Mayor Malcolm Brodie and councillors to adhere to ministry guidelines on house sizes to “protect” farmland erosion, while the other cautioned against curtailing farmers’ flexibility and limiting their ability to house extended families.
One of the early speakers on Monday night, Jim Wright, a long-time Richmond activist, spoke of a “Richmond Farmland Massacre,” with agricultural land across the city, from January to April this year, being “fragmented and lost to farming” due to land speculation.
Wright agreed with Coun. Day and Steves’ suggestion that one of the answers to building sprawl on farmland could be to build up (over two or three storeys) as opposed to out.
Referring to many farmers’ assertion that they need larger than normal homes for cultural reasons, to house extended families, Sandra Bourque questioned the need for “theatres and bowling alleys for farming.
“How much space do you need per person?”
While Lauren Gillanders claimed farmers are fighting to maintain the right to build big homes so they can “cash out” to developers.
“It is your job to curb speculation,” she told council.
“You’re expected to be more restrictive; it’s the minimum we expect; it’s not the councillors’ job to keep land values as high as possible.”
Gillanders further claim that other cities were waiting to see what Richmond does with farmland house sizes was met with indignation by Mayor Brodie, who dismissed the notion that other municipalities were waiting to see what happens here.
Coun. Steves, however, begged to differ.
“I have spoken with Pitt Meadows councillors and they are looking (at Richmond),” he said.
While showing a picture of a 23,000-square-foot home being built next to his house, John Baines joked that he gives free tours to people who are fascinated by Richmond’s mega homes.
“It looks like a shopping centre,” he said. “It has 13 bathrooms, which will certainly accommodate the farmworkers – who’ll likely never live there.”
Pointing to council, he added, “This has happened on your watch.
“Richmond is going to be the new mecca for mega homes and will attract dream home realtors from across the region. This is not ‘culture,’ this is luxury living and it’s absurd.”
On the farming/landowning side, Bruce May reminded council that “farmland needs farmers to farm it.”
“This is a business, not just a green space; let’s keep it attractive for farmers.”
Ron Fontaine, who lives on No. 7 Road, said “if you don’t save the farmers, it doesn’t matter about the farmland.”
Meanwhile, a couple of farmers, including Gary Brar, took a swipe at Steves and Day for taking to Facebook to urge people not happy with the proposals to attend Monday night’s meeting.
However, Peter Dhillon, whose family has been farming for almost 40 years in Richmond, took a more considered approach, saying that he was “disappointed” to see farmers being pitted against Richmond residents.
“Without farmers, there is no farming,” he said.
“I felt tonight, as a Richmond farmer, I’d done something wrong. I understand the mega home issue.
“But what allowed me to grow was the flexibility; without that, farmers are in trouble. There needs to be a compromise.
“Don’t lump the farmers into one group, there are legitimate farmers out there…be careful.”
By 12:45 a.m., the 150-strong crowd had thinned considerably, leaving behind a die-hard band of around 40 to 50, doing whatever they could to stretch and stay awake.
As it happens, they trailed off to bed none the wiser - and without seeing Santa.
In January, when council began a public consultation process on restricting home sizes on farmland, Day and Steves called for a moratorium, fearing a rush of development.
Since then, there has, indeed, been a deluge, with the average size of application at almost 13,000-square-feet; one proponent asked for 32,660-square-feet. A moratorium is now in place.