Metro Vancouver sends Delta's Southlands project to public hearing

Map of proposed changes to Metro Vancouver
Map of proposed changes to Metro Vancouver's Regional Growth Strategy for the proposed Southlands development in Delta.
— image credit: Metro Vancouver

A controversial compromise proposal to develop up to 950 homes on historic Tsawwassen farmland got enough support from Metro Vancouver directors to advance to a full public hearing on the required changes to the regional growth strategy.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves was the only member of the regional planning and agriculture committee who was opposed.

"It's definitely a precedent," Steves said, who added he remains hopeful the full regional board will torpedo the idea. "If this goes ahead it will be tried everywhere."

Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer and other directors said the proposal, which Delta council has passed, should at least get a full hearing.

It would develop 20 per cent of the former 217-hectare Spetifore farm, while retaining 80 per cent for agriculture, conservation and park space.

A key concern at Metro is whether the development – if approved – will encourage more developers to craft projects that offer to preserve some farmland in order to lucratively convert the rest to urban use.

That's what a final decision will likely hinge on and not local concerns about traffic, dust or other potential impacts on Tsawwassen.

"It's actually not Metro's job to do what's right for Delta or Delta residents," Reimer said. "Our job is to decide whether or not this proposal maintains the integrity of the growth strategy we agreed to unanimously."

The proposal would redraw part of the urban containment boundary and change the regional land use designation from agricultural to either general urban or conservation and recreation.

The Southlands property is not in the Agricultural Land Reserve but Delta says it will ask for preserved farmland to be added to the ALR.

Opponents of the plan who spoke Friday said Metro should reject the proposal and keep all of the farmland for agriculture.

Steves said the developer should not be rewarded after the land and a good drainage system was allowed to deteriorate over the years, degrading the agriculture potential.

Century Group has pledged $9 million to fund irrigation and drainage work.

Delta Coun. Ian Paton, who is also a farmer, predicted the Southlands proposal is the only way needed money will ever be found for those improvements to put the bulk of the property into full farm production.

Metro regional planning division manager Heather McNell said 54 per cent of the land would be retained as agricultural and be publicly held, giving greater assurance it will be farmed.

The downside, she said, is the loss of the other 46 per cent, and that approval could be seen as a sign that similar deals might unlock more farmland for development, increasing speculation on agricultural property.

Some Metro directors questioned whether a perpetual covenant could be put on the preserved land so a future Delta council doesn't someday approve development of parts of the property earmarked for farming, conservation and public use.

Regional planning committee chairman Derek Corrigan said doing so would give Delta a better chance of approval when the project comes back to the Metro board for a final vote, likely in May.

"Your case strengthens the more protections are put in for the promises being made," Corrigan said.

The committee heard several delegations, mostly opponents of the project.

Susan Jones of the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee said it would destroy a significant amount of internationally significant bird habitat that's part of the Pacific Flyway.

"There's no certainty here on any protection of the environment," Jones said. "You have a project here that doesn't meet any of your goals. It will open the community to further development."

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