Port seeks industrial reserve as land shortage nears
Port Metro Vancouver wants an Industrial Land Reserve created to block cities from rezoning more job-supporting land and avoid a scenario where the expanding port must increasingly raid farmland.
Officials there say the decisive step by the province is needed or else the port will be on a collision course with the region's other great protected land bank – the 40-year-old Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
While agriculture advocates regularly tally how much farmland vanishes each year to development, Port Metro Vancouver frets about eroding industrial land, which is lucrative for both developers and cities to convert to residential or commercial use.
"We are extremely concerned about the amount of industrial land that has been lost in the last two generations," port president and CEO Robin Silvester said.
More than 3,000 hectares of industrial land has been rezoned in the last 30 years in Metro Vancouver in just Surrey, Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond, he noted.
More than half of it has been lost in Surrey.
"You project that out and we have a real problem," he said.
He foresees a future where industry and port-related ventures are increasingly stymied by the shortage and soaring cost of suitable land.
Efforts have been made by regional planners and politicians to protect Metro's industrial footprint.
Metro Vancouver's new Regional Growth Strategy now requires a board vote to approve industrial land rezonings.
Silvester called it a good step but one that doesn't go far enough.
"We still are seeing debates about conversion of industrial land to other uses," he said.
He's seen land sellers price an industrial property at $60 million but suggest it may fetch $100 million if it can be rezoned residential, fueling more land speculation.
Cities face "overwhelming" financial pressure and can haul in much more property tax revenue after lower-value industrial land is redeveloped.
"I understand the problem from their perspective," Silvester said. "The problem is it takes away the future of the Lower Mainland."
Impacts are already being felt.
U.S. retailer Target looked at the Lower Mainland for a 1.3-million-square-foot distribution centre but developed in Calgary instead when suitable land couldn't be found here.
The port, which accounts for 80,000 direct and indirect high-paying jobs in the Lower Mainland, faces particular challenges in finding industrial land with good road, rail and water access.
Silvester has controversially said the port must eat into some agricultural land but aims to offset those losses by helping farmers improve agriculture productivity.
"It's an answer that does concern some people, so it's only part of the solution," he said.
The port has already bought up some farmland and its federal powers could let it supercede the ALR.
More intensive use of farmland would be only a "last resort" if there's no other way to meet the needs of the Pacific Gateway and the Lower Mainland economy.
But with another million people moving into the region by 2040, he says, something has to give.
Just as the ALR has succeeded in protecting local farmland, Silvester hopes industrial land can be preserved if regional politicians and the province can agree on an industrial reserve.
Otherwise, he sees Metro Vancouver losing its blue-collar vibrance – becoming a Florida-type lifestyle region as industry wanes in relevance.
"There may be people who are just able to retire to the Lower Mainland and live on their net worth," Silvester said.
"But if that's all the Lower Mainland was I suspect it would change the character of the region to the extent it would cease to be attractive."
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, who helped found the ALR, said he "absolutely" supports Silvester's call for an industrial land reserve.
"We don't want a big battle over farmland in the next few years because all the industrial land has been lost," he said. "It's the first time I've been on side with the port – at least partly, anyway."
Steves said he believes the Regional Growth Strategy's rules protecting industrial land are too loose, allowing those areas to inappopriately turn into office buildings or big box retail.
But Steves' backing of an industrial reserve doesn't mean he subscribes to the vision of Gateway planners for a tremendous increase in local port activity and the worsened traffic congestion and pollution that comes with it.
He argues the port should instead move containers by rail to Kamloops or Ashcroft and turn those cities into an inland port for container handling and logistics.
"If they finally agree to share the rest of Canada's requirements for container traffic with the Interior, we'll have a nice west coast lifestyle here – and at Ashcroft and Kamloops, which are basically depressed areas that could use the help."
Metro Vancouver is also looking for ways to encourage better use of scarce industrial land because the current supply is forecast to run out in the 2020s.
Planners at the regional district are studying best practices to intensify or densify industrial uses.
Options include multi-level buildings and more efficient designs.
Industrial rooftops could also be used for parking, agriculture or energy generation, according to a Metro discussion paper.
Port Metro Vancouver plans for continued increases in container shipments are increasingly at odds with the shrinking supply of industrial land needed to organize containers.