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Surprise — this October’s civic election in British Columbia will be no less gripping for those outside of the Vancouver echo chamber.

In the City of Richmond, and perhaps Delta too, citizens will directly decide on the city’s future as it relates to values around agricultural land protection, food security, and pushing back against deep-pocketed development.

The roots of the fight to come go way back; early European settlements used Lulu island (so named in 1862) for farming and fishing. It’s a big reason why Richmond got the name ‘the Garden City’. Farming is still important to Richmond today; Harold Steves, a longstanding Councillor for the City of Richmond, is also a farmer, and his family’s roots in Richmond date back to the early farming settlements of this place.

His family is why we have a village named Steveston, and Clr. Steves is one of the people for whom we have to thank for the Agricultural Land Reserve, established in 1973.

He’s also one of the few people in the halls of power fighting for its survival.

Last month, the City of Richmond cemented their reputation for having a developer-backed Council, when they threw out the recommendations of their own staff and approved the carving up of ALR land. Although it was established to ensure that our rich Class 1 farmland would remain protected for agricultural use only, and be affordable to farmers, only Councillor Steves, Councillor Carol Day, and Mayor Malcolm Brodie voted against the motion.

The rest of the city’s pro development council members voted for allowing the continued development of 10,700 square foot houses on agricultural land of one-half acre in size.

In another blow, council also approved the placement of an additional 3,200 square foot house on the same property. Even a petition with 6,000 signatures did not deter Richmond Council, which has now played the “get rich quick” card on turning a protected resource into local developer profit. You can be sure that this land will never be affordable to a local farmer again.

The result? Gated estates, most owned off-shore and in numbered companies, playgrounds for the rich on the best Class 1 farmland in Canada.

Factor in the lack of foreign buyer’s tax on farmland, and reduced property taxes if you grow a farm product, plus the lift from buying land as farmland and turning it into residential, and it’s a pretty good scam, yet entirely legal in Richmond.

There are now over 61 applications to further carve up the farmland. Even the City of Delta, previously one to waggle and point the finger at Richmond for their “farmhouse” policy, is now getting in the act. Against advice from Delta staff, council will now allow a farm with an existing 7,200 square foot “farmhouse” to tear down an older second home built at 1,400 square feet and rebuild up to almost 2,500 square feet.

The staff report says “It is generally recognized that allowing large residential footprints on agricultural properties may attract buyers who are non-farmers with limited interest in actual farming. Additionally, farmland with large houses may be prohibitively expensive for farmers.” 

Property owners can promise to “covenant” the house for farm use, but that’s nearly impossible to police and is rarely enforced.  As the staff report concludes “Construction of large estate homes has been shown to drive up the price of farmland thereby making farmland less affordable for farmers and less likely to be farmed.”

This all proves why it’s essential to evaluate council candidates in part on the basis of their commitment to protecting the future of farming and local food security.

To date, a number of candidates have spelled out quite clearly that they care enough about protecting the ALR to make it a key plank in their platforms. They included candidates on the Richmond Citizen’s Association slate, such as  are current Councillor Harold Steves, community activist Kelly Greene, Judie Schneider, and public school teacher and activist Jack Trovato.

Hopefully a similar slate will be declaring the protection of farmland in Delta too, while the rest of Metro Vancouver waits for the current provincial government to step in and say that protected farmland is not available for a residential development free-for-all.

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