Developer signs deal for 600 acres of ALR land

Proposal would turn Delta farmland into a rail yard to service Gateway Project

A warehouse developer has signed a $98-million deal to buy 600 acres of south Delta's prime farmland for industrial use.

Documents unearthed by Delta South Independent MLA Vicki Huntington indicate the option-to-purchase deal involves 11 productive farm parcels located in the Agricultural Land Reserve between Highway 17 and Deltaport Way.

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At the centre of the optioning deal is Lamington Heights Investments, a warehouse distribution business associated with the Emerson Real Estate Group.

Ron Emerson, president of the group, which specializes in confidential industrial land acquisitions, confirmed he signed the option-to-purchase agreements with five large-scale farmers, most of whom are growing blueberries, with some producing root vegetables.

"There is a shortage of land for Gateway; that was what sparked our interest," Emerson said, adding the development would limit the number of trucks on the road.

"It should help traffic around the Lower Mainland. We understand what Gateway needs and we understand this makes a lot of sense."

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie earlier this year criticized Port Metro Vancouver's quiet purchase in 2009 of the Gilmore Farm - 198 acres (80 hectares) of ALR land in Richmond near the Fraser River, adjacent to an existing port terminal.

Harold Steves, Richmond councillor and vice-chair of Metro Vancouver's regional planning and agriculture committee, said the option-to-purchase deal would compromise "the richest farm land in all of Canada" and lead to traffic congestion well into neighbouring municipalities.

"It's going to have tremendous implications to the entire region if it goes ahead," he said. "There will be opposition through the whole Lower Mainland, not just Delta."

Emerson noted there are still technical issues to be worked out, such as how the industrial land will fit in with the port terminal and rail yards. The bigger question is whether the land will be exempted from the ALR.

Huntington noted the option-to-purchase agreement will expire after the next provincial election.

The B.C. Agriculture Ministry distanced itself from the issue on Tuesday.

"The ALC [Agricultural Land Commission] looks at many factors when carrying out its mandate, and each application has its own distinct set of circumstances and is considered on its own merits," the ministry said in a statement.

"Government does not interfere in the independent decision-making process of the ALC."

Huntington said it appears the developers eventually hope to acquire all Delta lands in the agricultural tri-angle between Highway 17 and Deltaport Way, and have the support of the province.

The land abuts the Tsawwassen First Nation land that is now slated for industrial and commercial development. It also sits next to land previously bought in 2009 by BC Rail under its mandate to acquire port-related land.

"Port-related corporations like CN Rail, CP Rail and Western [are] working with developers who are actively seeking prime land in the Agricultural Land Reserve," Huntington said.

"The potential loss is even greater than the 512 acres (207 hectares) of ALR lost to the Tsawwassen Treaty. The combined loss could reach over 1,000 acres (405 hectares). The targeted land is some of the best agricultural soil in Canada."

The BC Gateway Transportation Strategy released earlier this week supports private-sector investments in new "transload" and integrated logistics facilities, she said, along with $2-billion in improvements to the pro-posed Roberts Bank Terminal 2.

She noted the provincial government's Pacific Gateway and B.C. Ports Strategies also include the mandate to acquire land for strategic port-related industry.

She said while there is no doubt the plans would increase port capacity and efficiency, "this is the wrong place and the wrong land."

She noted the optioned properties were part of the Roberts Bank Backup lands - farmland that was expropriated in 1968 for port development.

In the late 1990s to early 2000s, the province sold the land back to farmers for an average of $10,000 per acre. A decade later, the land is being optioned at an average of $185,000 per acre.

"Few people would turn down this kind of money, especially when it's clear the ALR means so little to our government," says Huntington. "It's disappointing, though, when even our pioneer farming families don't fight this destruction of farmland."

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