There was joy in Bradner on Monday after the rejection in full of the City of Abbotsford’s request to repurpose two large chunks of farmland to make way for more industrial development.
The decision means that about 200 hectares of land in two separate blocks of parcels – one located in Bradner, near the Langley border; the other just north of Abbotsford International Airport – will remain in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and remain off-limits to non-farm uses.
“This is very exciting news,” Bradner resident Cherry Groves told The News Monday. Groves had been one of more than 50 people to speak against the proposal at a public hearing last summer. And bolstered by the ruling, some Bradner residents say they are now hoping to make the city’s failed proposal an issue in this fall’s election.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, meanwhile, said he was “disappointed” and said the decision will force Fraser Valley politicians to re-examine their plans for industrial growth. Braun had thought that the NDP government’s calls for the “revitalization of the ALR” had made it unlikely the whole proposal would win approval. But he said he had remained hopeful a portion of the lands would be excluded.
A study commissioned by the city had suggested Abbotsford was quickly running out of industrial land well-suited to large regional businesses. And if Abbotsford couldn’t provide more land for industries, residents would have to drive to jobs in other communities, Braun and other councillors had said when they approved the plan last summer.
Coun. Patricia Ross cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan. Not all the lands originally under consideration were included in the request, with council declining to ask for the exclusion of more-productive land north and east of the airport.
The two blocks possessed starkly different characteristics.
Many of the Bradner parcels weren’t being actively farmed, and some owners said the hilly terrain made for poor growing conditions. But many neighbouring residents fiercely disagreed. They said the land should remain protected, could be farmed and that its development would lead to a surge in traffic in their community. The parcels had also been subject to a previous application by a private developer that had been rejected in 2016, with the Agricultural Land Commission’s caveat that it would be open to looking at such a proposal from the municipality itself.
The lands north of the airport had better soil and many were actively farmed. With most surrounding lands already being used for industry and many landowners on board, there was less opposition, although many still said their agricultural value should be preserved.
In its decision, the ALC rejected many of the city’s arguments for why the lands should be excluded.
It didn’t matter that the airport-area lands were near industrial uses and infrastructure, or that properties in Bradner needed improvements to address irrigation and drainage issues. The properties were capable of supporting agriculture, and thus appropriately included in the ALR, the commission ruled.
As for the region’s lack of industrial, chair Frank Leonard wrote that “it is not the role of the Commission to solve this supply issue.”
The ALC noted that it had previously excluded 180 hectares for Abbotsford’s 2004 City in the Country Plan and that many of those properties have yet to be developed. Constraints on the remaining lands aren’t sufficient rationale to exclude more lands, ruled the commission, which added that “agricultural lands can also generate employment opportunities.”
The ALC decision was made not by the South Coast panel that typically adjudicates requests for changes to the ALR, but by the organization’s executive committee – which includes Leonard and five vice-chairs – because the matter was deemed “provincially significant.”
Those opposed, though, were thankful the ALC held the reserve’s borders firmly in place.
“I’m reluctantly happy, because I know they can always reapply,” Groves said. Although she objected to the application on its merits, Groves said she also worried that if the exclusion was granted, it would only lead to more applications in the future for adjacent properties.
“If it’s in the Agricultural Land Reserve, it should stay in the Agricultural Land Reserve. If we keep allowing all these little bits to be dribbled out of the ALR, it will be gone, and once it’s gone it’s gone for good.”
Heather Lemieux, whose family farms blueberries on land adjacent to the Bradner property block, said there’s a sense that the city has been “encroaching” on the rural area, and said the area has already seen a surge in traffic.
The decision, she said, has brought a sense of relief. But Lemieux, who operates the Bradner Barker blog, said residents remain unhappy with the city for asking for the exclusion and said conversations have already turned to action in this fall’s election. Lemieux said residents felt “betrayed” by Mayor Henry Braun, who had voted in 2013 against the previous application by the private developer.
“They moved right on from that original happiness to what are we going to do next.”
In 2015’s mayoral race, Braun garnered 59 per cent of the 900 votes cast at Bradner Hall. (While Ross had garnered the most votes among councillor candidates, fellow incumbents who voted for the plan all finished in the top eight of vote-getters.)
Braun said this week that he understood residents’ displeasure, but that his 2013 vote was based on uncertainty about the costs of the project. He said he tried to make that clear at the time.
As for the city’s next steps, Braun said council will discuss the issue at a meeting in the months to come.
Braun reiterated that the lands in question composed less than one per cent of Abbotsford’s agricultural land, and said the city “certainly values” farmland. But he maintains that the city needs more land for industrial growth.
“I appreciate the decision has been rendered and we have to deal with that,” he said. “We have to ensure there is an adequate supply of industrial land … There needs to be a broader discussion of the economic impacts when businesses can’t relocate.”