A 40-year-old idea to create an industrial land reserve similar to the one that protects B.C.’s farmland has been renewed.
The concept could lay the foundations for a detente between those who say the Lower Mainland needs more room for industry and those who are suspicious of any proposal to remove land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
But decades of growth and change would make putting the concept into practice much harder to execute now than when first conceived, and any discussions would still likely be contentious, according to one of the members of the panel that included the idea in a report issued last month.
The idea of an industrial land reserve is one of dozens of recommendations contained in a report that was submitted to the province in December and publicly released at the end of April on how to bolster the ALR. It’s not a new idea.
When the Agricultural Land Commission was formed in the 1970s, it had the power to not only create the ALR, but also an industrial land reserve. But a change in government, the fallout from the controversial creation of the ALR, and a surplus of land at the time led to the abandonment of the idea, according to UFV geography professor Lenore Newman, who served on the panel.
“At the time, there was lots of … abandoned industrial land in and around Vancouver so everybody said, ‘You’re over-reaching, so leave it to municipalities,’ ” she said.
The Lower Mainland’s growth in the decades to come, though, saw tremendous demand for land from the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. Cities and developers repeatedly pleaded for – sometimes successfully, other times not – the exclusion of land from the ALR for all three uses. And areas designated for industry were rezoned to make way for homes and commercial developments.
In Abbotsford, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the city asked for land along Sumas Way near the U.S. border to be removed from the ALR for industrial purposes, then turned around and rezoned the land for commercial use.
Actions like that in Abbotsford and elsewhere have engendered deep suspicion of municipal governments by those who prize the ALR, said Newman, the Canada Research Chair for food security and a longtime advocate of the need to protect agricultural land. Just the prospect of such exclusions encourages speculation on agricultural properties and drives up land costs for actual productive farmers.
Still, Newman says it’s also true that the region has too little land for industry. A healthy, balanced economy requires that about 10 per cent of land be devoted to industry, she said. That figure is just five per cent in the Lower Mainland.
In recent years, as demand for and prices of homes skyrocketed, many municipalities have rezoned industrial land for residential uses – particularly in Vancouver.
“Because Vancouver converted so much industrial land to residential, they now have a bit of a crisis,” Newman said.
The panel’s report bluntly called the situation across the region a result of “poor urban planning.”
Protecting the remaining industrial land is relatively simple – although, even there, you’d run into some issues.
Abbotsford currently has several isolated areas of industrially zoned land that it hopes to see used for different purposes. Those include areas near the University of the Fraser Valley and the historic downtown that planners want to incorporate into cohesive urban centres.
The big issue has been figuring out where the region would get new industrial land.
In the Fraser Valley, options are limited, which led the city to ask the ALC for the removal of two large blocks of farmland – one near the border with Langley adjacent to that community’s Gloucester Estates industrial park, the other just north of Abbotsford International Airport. Both applications were denied, with the ALC saying that neither would be good for agriculture and that it wasn’t its job to find new industrial land.
In its report, the panel stopped short of recommending the full creation of an industrial land reserve, instead just calling for its consideration. The report says the province could work with municipalities to create such reserves “that do not impact the ALR.”
Newman said the panel wanted to leave it to the government to figure out just how it could maybe create a reserve. And while the report says all current ALR land should stay in the ALR, Newman said turning farmland over to industry would be more palatable if it was done with the guarantee that the properties in question could not be rezoned again in the future.
But that doesn’t mean such a discussion would be friendl, and Newman said any debate would still be “contentious.”
Mayor Henry Braun said the city should never have rezoned the Sumas Way properties and that the move is still frequently mentioned by critics.
“They still remind us that they are not happy with Abbotsford because those lands should never have been rezoned as commercial,” he said. “I agree with them.”
Braun said an industrial land reserve should have been created years ago, but a new reserve would come with a conversation about how it would “impact” the ALR itself.
Braun reiterated that, given its geographical limitations, Abbotsford can’t add to its own supply of industrial land without dipping into the ALR.
“No matter where we look, we’re built out in the urban area and any exclusion in any reasonable way has to be in the ALR.”
Agriculture minister Lana Popham said the recommendation by the panel was a “very interesting idea.” She said the concept doesn’t fall under her ministry, though.
Reg Ens, the executive director of the BC Agriculture Council, says the suggestion reinforces the need for both the entire provincial government and local municipalities to act together.
“This is more than just the Ministry of Agriculture’s plan. It sounds good [but] has that ship sailed?”