14. Plot thickens

There are new twists in the story of Richmond’s Garden City lands. I’ll recap first.

The setting of the story is 136 acres of green tranquility flowing south to Westminster Highway from a mountain backdrop. The central conflict is community values versus profits from farmland rezoning.

Five years ago, the Canadian government, which had anti-aircraft guns on the Garden City lands in World War II, tried to hand the property to the City of Richmond via the federal land disposer, Canada Lands Company CLC. The Musqueam Indian Band then obtained a legal stop order (“interlocutory injunction”) because of the lands’ “unique importance to it.”

The government could still have kept the lands for a program use with Richmond benefits. Good federal uses could include the community vision of a “Richmond’s Stanley Park” and Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s urban agriculture education.

But Canada Lands came up with a March 2005 pact with the government, the band, and the city. The land disposal company would get the property excluded from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) by August 1, 2005. The city would rezone it to enable high-density development of up to 78.2 acres. The company would sell it in parcels to developers, splitting vast profits with the band.

The city might eventually get part of the lands, though too little to meet the city’s open-space standards for the lands’ population—many unplanned thousands of residents beyond the city centre’s upper limit. In Coun. Harold Steves’ conservative calculation, it would cost us taxpayers at least $100 million to remedy the development’s open-space shortfall.

The Garden City lands deal was equally inane for ecological and food-security reasons, and it foolishly presumed the Agricultural Land Commission would rubber-stamp the ALR exclusion.

 In 2006, the commission flatly rejected Canada Lands’ application. But the company then made the city the figurehead applicant for a second try, with Canada Lands’ Randy Fasan leading city staff and other project team members.

That effort fizzled after citizens made overwhelming save-the-lands arguments in public hearing presentations and letters to the commission. Staff learned that the application had “very little chance.”

Mercifully, the city’s Garden City lands purchase agreement is scheduled to expire at the end of 2008, taking the ALR-exclusion application with it. That should lead to renegotiation (under the basic memorandum of understanding) and a window for federal government involvement.

But the expiring agreement may be revived still again. Richmond council would have to approve the recommendations of the city staff working on the Garden City lands ALR-exclusion project led by the land disposer, Canada Lands.

Try reading the staff report. (To access it quickly, just google “Richmond’s Garden City Lands”.) Here are some tidbits of the report’s advice to council, with my responses.

Staff advice: Hire city staff to enforce the Agricultural Land Commission Act regulations because the commission is short of enforcers.

Response: Why not just hand the commission money for hiring enforcers? That way, the attempt to buy the ALR exclusion would be more efficient and less cloaked. But should city taxpayers have to support a provincial commission?

Staff advice: Instead of finishing the East Richmond drainage and irrigation project as a City program, let the “Agricultural Endowment Fund” finish it.

My response: Threatening that decades-overdue program is unconscionable, and (so far at least) the fund is a hoax.

Staff advice: Beginning with a 1.5-square-mile “pilot project,” adjust property rights to try to increase agricultural land.

My response: If compliance is voluntary, property owners will reject the meddling. If compliance is imposed, there will be an outcry over lost value.

Staff advice: Undertake community initiatives in urban agriculture.

My response: Led by Garden City lands defenders, they are already flourishing. Their success shows the potential for greater success in the best location, the 136-acre setting of our story.

The next chapter is in council’s hands.

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