Industrial Park Proposed For Unused But Protected Maple Ridge Farmland

Industrial park proposed for unused but protected Maple Ridge farmland

Owner wants tract removed from Agricultural Land Reserve; offers to build gardens, parks and trails in exchange

By Randy Shore
Vancouver Sun
April 18, 2010
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The owner of an 81-hectare tract of unused agricultural land in Maple Ridge wants to build an industrial park and is offering to include park space, two hectares of community gardens, market garden plots, trails and other community amenities as part of the deal.

Steve Pelton needs the support of the District of Maple Ridge to advance his application to remove 66 hectares of the parcel from the Agricultural Land Reserve and has devised the plan to win the approval of the mayor and council.

Pelton also has to manage the optics of his 50-year friendship with Mayor Ernie Daykin, who grew up down the block from him. Pelton's father Norm was the single biggest contributor to Daykin's mayoral campaign in 2008, writing a cheque for $3,500 of Daykin's total campaign budget of $34,000.

“I was their paper boy for a few years,” laughed Daykin. “[The Peltons] have supported me in all three of my campaigns as councillor and as mayor, but if this thing is not right for Maple Ridge then I won't support it.”

Pelton isn't expecting any favours, but he thinks he has the right project at the right time. When the new Golden Ears Bridge opened, a light went on.

The parcel runs along 203 Street from 132 Avenue to Golden Ears Way, which connects to the Golden Ears Bridge. The district's Official Community Plan calls for new industrial land to be developed and that it should be near major transportation routes, so location will work in Pelton's favour, according to Maple Ridge director of planning Jane Pickering.

The OCP also calls for the protection and enhancement of agricultural lands. “So there's a little bit of tension there,” she said.

With the new Pitt River Bridge fully open and the Golden Ears replacing the Albion ferry to Langley, Daykin thinks Maple Ridge is poised to grow, perhaps even faster than the three per cent a year it has recently experienced.

About 60 per cent of the workforce leaves Maple Ridge to work. “Our challenge is going to be how do we develop and redevelop our landbase to create jobs,” Daykin said.

A 2005 consultant's report suggested the district needs another 81 hectares of industrial land to accommodate growth in west Maple Ridge.

“I think that makes this project a really good fit,” said Pelton, who reckons the eventual value of the project to be about $250 million.

The previous tenant on the property folded a tree seedling nursery two years ago when recession hit the forest industry. A greenhouse-based vegetable-growing operation on the site also failed to thrive.

“There's only about four inches of top soil on that parcel so it's useless for root crops,” Pelton said.

The project's critics are skeptical.

“That's what everyone says who wants to take land out of the ALR,” said Donna Passmore of the B.C. Farmland Defence League. “It's too wet, nothing will grow there, there's too much clay. All the land in the Fraser Valley is like that and it's the best place to grow in North America. Stick a seed in the ground and see what happens.”

She termed the spate of ALR exclusion applications by developers in Metro Vancouver “a gold rush.”

Pelton tried to have some of the parcel removed from the ALR in 2004 as part of a multi-owner 405-hectare package, but failed amid community objections to the plan, particularly by the Pitt Polder Preservation Society, which collected almost 2,000 signatures opposing the project. The society has renewed its objection to this plan and delivered an even bigger petition with more than 2,300 signatures to council.

“[The 2004 deal] was too big for council to even fathom,” Pelton said. “You can't just apply to take land out of the ALR and convert it to industrial without giving anything back, that's just not socially acceptable.”

This time, Pelton is proposing to create a “legacy” project that will deliver real benefits to the community, in particular young farmers and students in need of smaller parcels of land for market gardens, “incubation farms” and experimental agriculture.

The Pelton family ran an above-ground tree seedling operation on the site for about 40 years before selling the business – but not the land – to Victoria-based Pacific Regeneration Technologies.

Pelton still runs Kitchen Pick Living Herbs in a one-hectare greenhouse complex.

By scraping the thin top soil off the industrial part of the parcel, he believes that viable agricultural land can be created for low-cost lease plots and a large community garden. The proposal also calls for a baseball field and several kilometres of trails for walking and horseback riding.

If council approves the proposal, Pelton's application will go to the Agricultural Land Commission, which will consider whether to grant the exclusion.

Often the commission will ask that another piece of land of equal size be offered to the ALR to replace the land being taken out, but it has been known to approve exclusions for projects that demonstrate a “net benefit to agriculture.”

To that end, Pelton's proposal includes lots of agriculture-friendly components as well as an offer to fund large-scale drainage work that would improve the viability of surrounding agricultural properties.

About half of the district's ALR land is in active agricultural use, mainly for raising horses, in pasture and small livestock operations. Much of the rest is either unused or in residential use.