Delta is becoming a battleground over values.
Two opposing viewpoints, which couldn't be any more different, appear to be on a collision course over the future of Delta's farmland, considered to be some of the best in the country.
On one side, there's resistance to any development or change, with many citing concerns over environmental impacts and the need for food security.
On the other, there's the possibility many hectares will be converted into container storage yards, trucking depots and warehouses, due to a shortage of industrial land in proximity to the port at Roberts Bank. That land is reportedly needed to service the Asia Pacific Gateway initiative to facilitate growth of the economy both regionally and nationally.
That second scenario is what groups like the Council of Canadians and Against Port Expansion (APE) say could happen, so they're campaigning against the industrialization of the Fraser River delta. Others, like the Fraser Institute, describe the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) as a failed social experiment that hasn't halted the decline of family farm operations.
The ALR in Delta comprises about 9,400 hectares, of which around 6,700 hectares (71 per cent) is both "actively" and "inactively" farmed.
The problem is that while Delta might be still considered a farming community, as well as a critically important part of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, it's surrounded by a huge and growing Lower Mainland urban population that brings its own pressures.
It also happens to be home to the busiest container port in Canada, one that has plans to grow.
Warning the farming community could become an industrial wasteland, Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington this year revealed plans to industrialize some prime ALR land with warehouse logistics to support the Deltaport container terminal.
Huntington found that a warehouse developer signed $98 million in options to buy 11 farm parcels near Deltaport Way.
She said she's concerned that if the consortium partnered with Port Metro Vancouver, there may be no need to go through the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to exclude the acreage because the port falls within federal jurisdiction.
"I do know the province is very aware of this and quite supportive of it... I can see them justifying it because of Gateway (program). These are seen as strategic port-related lands."
Noting even more plans may be on the horizon, the group Stopthepave.org said it's "just what we know about for sure."
Delta North New Democrat MLA Guy Gentner, who also wondered why so much Delta farmland has been purchased for B.C. Rail, noted Delta has already suffered from a wave of exclusions from the ALR that have undermined the ability of the community to retain its agricultural character and support farmers.
In response, Agriculture Minister Don McRae said anyone seeking to have land removed from the reserve needs to go through a proper process with the local community and the commission.
The controversy is the latest when it comes to Delta's farmland, multiplying the uncertainty regarding Port Metro Vancouver's Container Capacity Improvement Program. A major element of that program is an entirely new three-berth terminal at Roberts Bank, known as Terminal 2 (T2), which would double container capacity.
This year also happens to mark the 40th anniversary of the effort by the province to freeze B.C.'s agricultural land from development, an unprecedented move in Canada that hasn't been duplicated.
It was late in 1972 when the New Democratic government announced it would be passing laws preventing farms from being rezoned for urban use. Then agriculture minister Dave Stupich said he would not advise anyone to invest in farmland with any intention to develop it for residential or industrial purposes. He said that if the trends in real estate at that time continued, there would be no agricultural land left in the Okanagan or Fraser valleys.
In response, then Delta mayor Dugald Morrison said the provincial government was "the worst offender" in taking away good farmland in Delta. He pointed to the government just a few years prior to that expropriating thousands of acres for future industrial development to support the Roberts Bank superport.
Those expropriated lands, known as the Roberts Bank back-up lands, were leased back to farmers and never developed. It would be decades later before much of the land was sold back to the farmers, but not before some of it was set aside for the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty.
The TFN, which is being eyed as a possible location for an expansive foreign (free) trade zone, is currently working with Port Metro Vancouver on developing industrial land.
As far as the B.C. farmland freeze, the controversy over the move by government was just starting to heat up in 1972 when an article from the monthly newsletter of the B.C. Institute of Agrologists noted the paving over of the Fraser Valley could not be allowed to happen.
"It would be foolish indeed to become dependant on another province or country for our food. Problems and political decisions beyond our control could very well affect the cost and availability of our food," the article noted.
Commenting on the current optioning controversy, the Wilderness Committee's Joe Foy on his group's website echoed concerns conveyed by many today when it comes to food security. He said the region "cannot afford to lose one square inch more of farmland to shortsighted developments," including port-related expansion.
The highly controversial Agricultural Land Reserve was introduced as law in 1973, drawing an immediate negative reaction from local farmers, developers and property owners.
The person receiving the biggest brunt of the storm at that time locally was Carl Liden, the NDP MLA for Delta. He got an earful at a heated public meeting that year, where more than 1,000 people showed up to voice their anger.
At that gathering, local farmers and landowners were critical of the New Democrats, saying the government was seizing control of land while not doing enough to help farmers. Liden got jeers as he tried to explain that large tracts of Delta land were owned by real estate firms.
"I don't think their intention is to farm the land," he said.
Today, some Delta farmers continue to oppose the reserve. They also openly question the viability of farming in the Lower Mainland.
In a 2007 interview on the subject, John Savage, who's the current president of the Delta Farmers' Institute, recalled that most in Delta were upset about the land freeze, but it's clear most of Delta's prime farmland would have otherwise been paved long ago. He recently told the Optimist he's opposed to the optioning deals, noting too much valuable farmland is being lost.
As far as the argument that land excluded from the ALR is being replaced, that is also filled with controversy. A 2006 report by the David Suzuki Foundation, for example, pointed out that since 2000, over 70 per cent of land removed from the ALR has been in the more populated southern part of the province. Ninety per cent of land added to the reserve has been in the north, land that is typically of lower quality and agricultural potential.
At a workshop hosted by Metro Vancouver's agriculture committee, Harold Steves, one of the creators of the ALR, noted, "A Ministry of Agriculture report stated we need to find an additional 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland in this region if we are going to continue to feed ourselves and the additional 800,000 people expected in the next 15 to 20 years. Where do we find these lands?"
He told the Optimist Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester, however, has declared war on the ALR.
"He claims we should change the ALR from an agricultural land reserve to an employment land reserve. While he's suggested that we all talk about it, they're buying up the land. They claim they can overrule the Agricultural Land Reserve, they claim they can overrule Delta and Richmond councils. They bought farmland in Richmond as well," said Steves.
Delta farmland has already been lost to the billion-dollar South Fraser Perimeter Road, a highway under construction that will cut through the community that will link the container port to the Trans-Canada Highway. More is expected to be lost through a multitude of road and rail projects underway or in the future to accommodate a planned increase in the movement of goods.
Meantime, the province this year recently unveiled the Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy 2012 - 2020, a series of measures to improve the supply chain on the West Coast.
Premier Christy Clark described the multi-billion dollar plan as an important one in expanding B.C.'s transportation network, strengthening infrastructure to get goods to market and generating sustainable economic growth.
According to a report outlining the strategy, the plan includes carrying out private sector railway investments in transload facilities and exploring the feasibility of developing integrated logistics facilities to make the movement of containers to and from ports more efficient.
"Currently, containers may be emptied, filled and stored at dozens of small, unconnected off-dock sites spread across large areas - with trucks moving to and from these sites with limited coordination. Integrated logistics facilities in Vancouver and Prince Rupert will minimize truck movements, reduce environmental impacts and ensure the safe movement of goods. Industry will explore the feasibility of creating centralized, integrated facilities for each port."
Terminal 2 is also prominent in strategy.
According to Port Metro Vancouver, "One in every 12 working people in the Lower Mainland earns a living because of a port-related business and many more work in businesses that depend on shipping goods through the port. Port Metro Vancouver is part of a supply chain that begins and ends in communities across Canada, and it is the economic lifeblood of the Lower Mainland."
In a presentation to Metro Vancouver's board of directors, Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester said, "For example, it may be time to seriously re-think land-use planning, so that the facilities and infrastructure required by our own inevitable population growth and a changing world will be accommodated without sudden or unexpected impact."
He added, "Perhaps it's not just an Agricultural Land Reserve that's needed in British Columbia, but a Jobs Land Reserve. A reserve where land that is critical to the jobs we have, and the new jobs we will require over the next 30 to 40 years, allows them to grow and flourish in a sustainable way."
In an interview this year with the Optimist, Silvester explained that industrial land being taken over by residential development has had the trickle down effect on agriculturally zoned lands.
Recent reports by the regional district also note Metro Vancouver has a limited land base to accommodate future industrial growth.
Silvester said, "What I'm saying to a lot of stakeholders, including the board of Metro Vancouver, is there's a really important conversation we need to have here that we haven't had, and if we don't take responsibility for having a conversation about how can we more effectively plan use of land in the Lower Mainland in the future, we face some severe consequences which can be very detrimental to the economy."
A recent Metro Vancouver report noted the new Regional Growth Strategy reaffirms the long-standing regional value of protecting agricultural land from conversion to non-agricultural uses.
The report, though, also echoes Silvester's concern, stating, "The region lacks a functional forum to, at a minimum, coordinate and share information about land use, transportation and economic development between senior governments, industry and local government authorities."
Decisions that could dramatically alter Delta's landscape, however, shouldn't be done piecemeal, behind the scenes or in isolation, said Dr. Gordon Price, program director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.
Saying potential trade-offs should be discussed with as many stakeholders as possible, Price noted the decision-making process must be a transparent one. He's concerned the character of Delta, as well as its values, will be transformed without any real input from citizens.
"You know the discussions are occurring behind closed doors. The port is not being upfront about it either. The (ALC) board really has to take a position, in my opinion, on whether they are going to sacrifice agricultural land on this scale," he said.
"The Agricultural Land Reserve is the most important land use decision made in this province - period. It's certainly as far as the Lower Mainland is concerned and it's constraint is one factor that has led to the quality of life of the region, the values that we believe, the significance of the Pacific Flyway, food security, which is a current issue but one that will only be more important, and one gets the sense that these things aren't being discussed or even put on the table."
Delta council asked Clark, as well as the federal government, to ensure Ottawa doesn't use its power to remove port-related land from the ALR without the ALC's consent.