1. The Muddy Issue

      This is the tale of Richmond’s humble famous field, its coveters, and its guardian.

     The Garden City lands are a half-mile-square field east of Garden City Way between Westminster and Alderbridge. The Canada Lands Company and Musqueam Indian Band made an agreement to divvy it up with the City of Richmond. It would be the site of high-density buildings and, in backers’ wistful thinking, a trade and exhibition centre.

     An attempt to remove the field from BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) failed. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) said it is “prime agricultural land” well suited to farming. In a second attempt to sway the Commission, the City is trying to generate a “community need” for removal.

     The ALR is a land bank. It was set up in the 1970s to safeguard a precious resource, the green gold of BC’s scarce farmland, for future food needs. It remains a model for the world.

     Ready for a true-or-false quiz? Give it a try!

     Hint: These five statements include some true (T) and some false (F).

1.      The recent Richmond Community Survey proved strong support for the agreement to develop the Garden City lands. T or F?

2.      If the Commission removes the Garden City lands from the ALR, there will be no possibility that the Musqueam will ever claim the entire field. T or F?

3.      The agreement says the City’s half would be scattered throughout the Garden City lands. T or F?

4.      Although 30% of the City half is allowed for a trade and exhibition centre, the City may use that land for other amenities. T or F?

5.      The agreement constrains the City’s zoning of the other half. T or F?

     Statement 1 is false. Most basically, that’s because the Richmond Community Survey was used to mold opinions under the guise of gathering them. It provides figures for support of the agreement, as expressed early and late in the phone interviews, and those statistics seemingly show that respondents became more supportive while being interviewed. However, far from proving genuine support, the figures show that misleading methods beget misleading results.

     To understand better, let’s delve into an example. First, the context: only a minority of the respondents initially said they understood the ALR or were aware it includes the Garden City lands. So most had to rely on what the interviewers told them.

     When asked the key question of whether ALR lands can be used for non-agricultural community use, only about a quarter of the respondents chose the incorrect answer.

     Now the mind-boggling part. All the respondents were then told this: “In fact, lands in the ALR may only be used for agricultural and not for other community uses.” Wrong!

     The truth is that the Commission may permit non-farm use “on any terms the Commission considers advisable” (ALC Act, 29.1b). It happens often, typically for uses that don’t compromise long-term viability for farming.

     What’s more, “survey” leaders’ own press release (released to promote the “survey” results) reflects that truth. It states that “playing fields, recreational and cultural amenities . . . would require application to the Agricultural Land Commission to either remove the land from the Agricultural Land Reserve or obtain special approval from the Agricultural Land Commission for ‘non-farm use.’

     The falsity highlighted in this example was fed to the respondents at a pivotal point. It undoubtedly misled them, inflating the figures that the “survey” leaders construed as support.

     The example is just the tip of the iceberg. To see for yourself, have a look at the ALC’s Garden City Property decision and staff report, as well as the Digging Deep Resources.

     In any case, when 508 Richmond people consented to be interviewed, they trusted that their input would be gathered for the common good, not manipulated. Our trust was undermined. The issue was muddied.

     As a Review editorial put it, the Garden City lands issue “figures to have far-reaching impacts decades from now.” Our decisions on the issue must be founded on the truth. In this short series of columns, we will dig deep into the Garden City lands to unearth more truth.

     Lastly, how did you do on the other T-or-F statements? The answers are 2-false, 3-true, 4-false, and 5-true. In the next column, we’ll see why.

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