Majority on Township Council Fail to Protect Farmland

At the May 9, 2022 Township of Langley regular council meeting, after deferring the application at the April 25, 2022, Mayor and council deliberated on OCP Amendment and Rezoning Application No. 100209, or better known as the Conwest application to delete 8 properties totally 36 acres from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and adding them to the Gloucester Industrial Park Community Plan.

Over the past 4 years, this council really hasn’t had much to consider when it comes to the farmlands. Early in the term, there were some non-farm uses accepted, but kept the farmland in tact, and an exclusion around the Fort Langley airstrip that had an equitable (at least according to council) transfer. Beyond this, I’m not really aware of many attempts for ALR-exemptions. This may be because of the reduction of applications to the ALC in general in the last half decade.

Even if I did miss one or two applications, it would be fair to say that this Council hasn’t really had much to test their commitment to farmland on. I had a feeling that this would be the case, which is why when I asked candidates 10 questions in 2018, only one question focused on the ALR. My exact question was as follows:

BRAD: Higher density in Langley is suggested as a means to increase housing affordability, pay for amenities/infrastructure and protect ALR land. Agree or disagree? Explain.

As you can see, the question wasn’t directly asking if candidates supported the ALR, since I knew everyone “supports the ALR” in the same way everyone “supports firefighters”. I was hoping to draw out ideas about both density and farmland. Five candidates that would become councillors answered the questions. Blair Whitmarsh, Steve Ferguson and David Davis all mentioned support of higher density and explicitly mentioned the protection of the ALR as one of the reasons. Bob Long did not refer to the ALR in his answer. Eric Woodward provided the longest answer and offered the most explanation, including below:

But to me, we protect the ALR 100%, no exceptions, regardless of density or affordability issues. The ALR needs to be off limits to ensure we maintain our rural character, food production capacity for the future, and to not sprawl out everywhere, which is unsustainable.

Eric Woodward, 2018 Candidate

Fast forward four years and it’s interesting to see what happens when push comes to shove. Campaigning is one thing, governing is another.

I’ve mentioned before that I am “militantly” pro-ALR. I don’t believe that opening up the ALR would actually have anything but a nominal affect on housing prices and the exemptions that do squeeze through the ALC tend to be for multi-million dollar estates and suburban sprawl, and definitely nothing that would represent sustainable smart growth. Usually a developer or speculator will get something passed by offering a valuable trade in land or major improvement to the property that will encourage its overall farmability.

Neither happened in May 2022. We lost farmland and gained industrial land. The addition of industrial land was the almost universal reasoning provided by Mayor Froese, Councillor Whitmarsh, Long, and Kunst. Only Councillor Arnason seemed to be persuaded by the so-called environmental benefit of the 3.5 acres that was given via a “voluntary” contribution for the 36 acres of exclusion.

With Councillor Richter absent, only Councillors Davis, Ferguson and Woodward were present to defend the rural land. Multigenerational farmer and long time farmland defender David Davis spoke first against the application. While he said he was “not disputing their findings”, he carried on to state the importance that of the 5 Agricultural Land Commission panel votes, it was only the South Coast Panel Chair, which represents our area, that dissented, whereas the North Panel Chair, Interior Panel Chair, Island Panel Chair, and Acting Chair and Okanagan Panel Chair voted for it. It is important because of South Coast Panel Chair was the only one who showed understanding of the local agricultural environment in his reasoning for dissent:

Councillor Davis compared his own farm on the busy 216th Street, stating that the road does not limit his agriculture in the slightest (although his tractors have been known to slowdown traffic on Glover Road at times :D). Similarly he said, in support of Smith’s second point, that if he walked through his farm today, he could not wear shoes, he would have to wear gumboots – granted, that’s his campaign attire as well:

David Davis campaigning in 2014

We know how to farm with wet conditions…

Councillor David Davis

And finally in support of the third point, Davis states:

In Metro Vancouver, we have the most small lots in any Township in Metro Vancouver.

In his summation, Davis said he would be consistent [in his protection of farmland] and not support the application.

Councillor Petrina Arnason was next to speak, and reminded Councillor Davis that we must “defer” to the opinion of the Agricultural Land Commission and that it is not the Township of Langley’s land out of the ALR. The decision was already made by the ALC.

How far does Councillor Petrina Arnason believe these applications get without Township approval? Or what signal do these exclusions give to every speculator and landowner on the edges of farmland, seething to multiply the land value of their property and eat away at the ALR?

It should be noted that this application goes all the way back to February 2009, when Township of Langley staff did NOT recommend that the then Council support this exclusion in their suggestion to the ALC. After some lobbying in 2009 and 2010, staff reversed their recommendation and council supported the exclusion, which was reaffirmed in April 2010, with support of then Mayor Rick Green, and Councillors Jordan Bateman, Bev Dornan, Charlie Fox, Mel Kositsky, Bob Long and Kim Richter in favour – only Steve Ferguson and the late Grant Ward opposed the recommendation.

Interestingly enough, despite Council’s recommendation, the ALC rejected the application in September 2010. The four commissioners present concluded:

After much legalize and events, the Supreme Court of BC, issued an Order 7 years later in 2017 to force the reconsideration of the application. So while Councillor Arnason is correct, the ALC did make the final decision on the ALR exclusion, it is up to the Township of Langley council to rezone the lots from the Rural Plan to the Industrial Park. Arguably, true defenders of farmland will protect our rural land beyond the ALC and stop letting decision makers from other parts of the province continue to sacrifice our local food security and promote speculation of farmland. Unfortunately, just like in 2010, the majority of our current council has not shown itself to be defenders of farmland.

Arnason proceeded to express strong support for the 3.5 acre swap with a lengthy speech that extolled the merits of an unrelated site enhancement. However, there seemed to be little acknowledgement of how small the 5 acre site on 96th Avenue really is or the dangerous precedent set by this council in approving this swap. While the enhancement of wetlands is a great idea, this lack of pushback from this council shows that the majority simply either have a skewed idea of the value of farmland or simply don’t know how to negotiate. It’s wonderful to say we are trying to protect the environment, but when you trade $100 for $10, it shows a severe misunderstanding of value. Based on my understanding of Councillor Arnason’s defence of the application, she was willing to give up 36 acres of rural lands to pollutant industry to protect wetlands a fraction of the size and would likely do so again.

“Community Benefit” Land, as proposed

Councillor Whitmarsh echoed Arnason’s “it’s out of our hands” argument about the ALC conclusion and looked to take advantage of the rural lands, which, apparently, simply have no farm value anymore. The focus of his speech was on creating industrial jobs, as if the Township couldn’t rezone non-farmland for industrial purposes. Councillors Kunst and Long echoed Whitmarsh’s sentiments – both extolling the virtues of industrial lands. However, if this is the case, why not just remove everything from the ALR? Why not 100 acres or 200 acres more? Councillor Davis later pointed out that the logic that follows removing these 8 properties will also work for the properties directly north of them and will “make it a square”. “Why not”, he facetiously asked. Additionally, there is an underlying assumption with Councillors Whitmarsh, Kunst and Long that somehow these jobs are not replacing others, or that farming doesn’t stir employment. There was a vey direct diminishment of farmland in its comparison with industrial land by these councillors.

Councillor Eric Woodward attempted multiple referral motions that were all defeated. First was an attempt to refer to back to staff for “a proper plan for CAC contributions contemplating all of the Gloucester Industrial Estates, including the former golf course lands.” Woodward argued that their should be environmental cautions as well as equitable ones, where some proponents in the Gloucester area are forced to consider environmental impacts that apparently this rezoning application does not.

Both Davis and Ferguson came out to support the referral, both using slippery slope argumentation regarding the flaw in supporting expansion of industrial land without an updated plan. Whitmarsh attacked the idea, stating that while he is not opposed to adopting a CAC policy for industrial lands, this is not the time for a policy change. Arnason also backed Whitmarsh’s argument, while also reminding council that it did not adopt a stormwater plan for the bulk of the industrial lands. I’m not sure why two wrongs makes a right.

Woodward seemed to believe the same as I, viewing this as an unprecedented removal of farmland, essentially by court order, followed by a series of convenience requests for the landowner for “basically nothing in return”.

…if we are going to start rezoning lands for Gloucester Industrial Estates for all the logic that was presented for this one, I think it’s appropriate to do it for all of Gloucester Industrial Estates. I didn’t see any concern for industrial land three years ago, I didn’t see any concern for industrial land two years ago, I didn’t see any concern for industrial land a year ago. I didn’t see a concern for industrial land until Conwest came forward. So what I think I’m trying to do is treat all proponents with the same situation in Gloucester, or someone who is inside Gloucester can’t move forward, but this person can… I am trying to come up with a framework that is fair for everyone.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Mayor Froese quickly counterpunched Woodward’s referral motion by calling it borderline “out of order” and that “we need industrial lands” and “jobs” and couldn’t support the motion “at this late date”.

The first referral motion was defeated on a 5-3 vote with Mayor Froese, Councillors Whitmarsh, Long, Kunst, and Arnason against and Richter absent.

The second motion by Councillor Woodward comes after his frustration with a common process, as he states:

We try to do it at first and second reading, it’s too early. Do it at third, it’s too late.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Woodward continued on in an attempt to “improve the deal” with a “Climate Change Action Fund” proportionate to the value being created. Quoting from one of the individuals who spoke at the public hearing, Woodward argues:

It is true that the proponent developed a plan to provide environmental compensation offsite. Proper environmental offsets often require that the restored areas be a multiple of the area lost. Further study is required to determine if the compensation offered is adequate.

Councillor Eric Woodward quoting Kirk Robertson, Langley resident

“I agree.” Woodward states.

The compensation package is woefully inadequate for what is occurring – 35 acres of rural land put inside the urban boundary… in exchange for 5 acres of wetlands and a few million dollars. Industrial land in Metro Vancouver is around $7 million an acre… so I think you can all do the math… I think it is a huge disservice to the taxpayer and I think what we are doing is essentially subsidizing development… a lot of the things we need to do will be offset onto property taxes because we don’t stand up and get a good deal for taxpayers, and that’s whats happening here.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Not only are we looking at the almost $250 million in value that is being created for the landowners, but the 5 acres of “community benefit” land is ALREADY in the ALR. I repeat, this is not land that is outside of the ALR and being put in, in exchange. It is, rather, ALR land that is deemed to be less economically valuable for a multitude of reasons cheaply rehabilitated and “gifted” in what is one of the most one-sided deals I’ve ever seen.

Councillor Woodward continues on to quote another public hearing submission as inspiration for his proposed motion:

What this council could do to help mitigate this loss is create a fund, potentially a climate action fund, as a way to offset the damages this development is creating.

M. Van Popta, Fort Langley resident

Woodward went on to claim that other municipalities are lightyears ahead of the Township in what the Township receives in return for deals like this, but failed to provide examples (I would be very interested in comparisons). He went on to continue to suggest that the taxpayer is basically getting ripped off in this deal.

Councillor Petrina Arnason immediately struck back, saying she is has never heard about the alleged “multiplier affect” that Mr. Robertson and Woodward referred to. She said she hasn’t heard of this, doesn’t know what this number is, and demands to have a “scholarly article” in order to endorse it.

I think this is a HUGE benefit to the Township of Langley. There would be no merit in deferring it any further.

Councillor Petrina Arnason

Councillor Bob Long didn’t see a correlation between what Councillor Woodward was proposing and what was being spent by the Township and therefore we are just “out for a grab”. In his view, more employment lands (that aren’t farming) are a “tremendous benefit” to the Township.

Councillor Whitmarsh, looking for explanation regarding the comment by Woodward on the comparison with other communities, asked staff if there are examples of benefits provided to city for lands converted from rural to industrial lands. Community Development Manager Ramin Seifi answered that there was nothing in the past 5-10 years that he is aware of, but admitted it isn’t to say it hasn’t happen – he is just not aware.

Councillor David Davis brought up the failed ALR exclusion from years ago that attempted to exchange 20 acres of farmland for 20 acres of a rock pit as a possible example.

In his second defence of his motion, Woodward stated,

I view it as a partnership with development to offset property taxes to mitigate climate change caused by development and growth; and a more proportionate, fair, reasonable deal for taxpayers is what we are here to do. I’m not here to serve Conwest, I’m here to serve the Township of Langley… and I think this is much more proportionate and reasonable than the conclusion that I respect but disagree with that somehow three and half acres of land next to the train tracks is somehow compensation for whats occurring here.

Mayor Jack Froese also jumped on the jobs/employment lands bandwagon in his opposition to Woodward’s Climate Action Fund and took issue with Woodward’s dig about serving the taxpayers of Langley:

I’m here to serve the Township of Langley residents and the people who are going to the getting future jobs here… staff has worked hard for those amenities and I appreciate those amenities. I think this amenity goes too far, but by voting against this doesn’t mean that I’m against doing a better job to mitigate climate change – that has nothing to do with this motion at all, as far as I’m concerned… these lands provide jobs, provide huge tax base for the Township of Langley; they support our residents and jobs… Those lands are employing people… I don’t see this as helpful at all.

Mayor Jack Froese on Councillor Woodward’s Climate Action Fund referral amendment

Woodward’s referral amendment for the Climate Action Fund also failed on a 5-3 vote with Mayor Froese and Councillors Arnason, Long, Kunst, and Whitmarsh opposed and Councillor Richter absent.

Councillor Eric Woodward explaining his third proposal

Sensing the likely failure of the first two amendments, Councillor Eric Woodward attempted a third amendment:

…to refer back to staff to work with the proponent for a contribution towards a new firehall for improved fire protection service to the Gloucester Industrial Estates.

Woodward was obviously grasping for any sort of additional contribution above and beyond what he felt was a “woefully inadequate” deal, explaining more in depth:

This could have been any number of things. It could have been an overpass contribution to offset the property taxes that are going to go to pay for that probably, it could have been a number of other things – interest, that the taxpayers are paying to subsidize growth… but this one speaks directly to the challenge we are facing in the expansion of Gloucester Industrial Estates without a plan…. and not expecting taxpayers to subsidize the expansion of services to service land that is coming out of the ALR… urban boundary changing, one off of the ALR via a court order, expanding by 35 acres, getting 3.5 acres of contaminated site next to the train tracks in return.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Councillor Petrina Arnason showed visible frustration with Woodward and expressed that she did not see the logic in moving the money from the failed Climate fund to now a firehall instead. She also expressed that she had not seen any report that suggested that the contribution site is contaminated, but even if it was, it would, of course, need to be remediated. Arnason concluded that she would not support the motion because it was, according to her, “way too vague”.

Councillor Bob Long brought up the facts that the proponent will, in fact, be paying the appropriate DCC’s for the new industrial land, which go towards expanding services. He felt that the Aldergrove FireHall is only 7 minutes away and therefore an additional fire hall would likely be unnecessary. He also stated that he did not see a connection between the third Woodward proposal and the proponent’s application.

Woodward countered that mill rates are not being changed in this case: “There is no additional property tax revenue unless you modify mill rates… the DCC revenue is for servicing the site itself… not specific to expanding Gloucester.”

However, I’m not exactly sure this is accurate. The 2021 BC Assessment of just one sample parcel, 26601 56th Avenue, had a value of $1,495,000 for 4.75 acres. This extremely low evaluation of $315,000 per acre is because it WAS farmland. After the overturned exclusion, the 2022 tax appraisal now has it at $10,497,000, or $2.2m per acre. While an increase to property values don’t necessarily mean an increase in tax revenue, as Woodward points to the significance of the mill rate, it is important to remember that this is in relation to the overall market. If a property value increases by 25%, but the entire market increases by 25%, you won’t see your taxes rise (except for the usual 3+% hike). However, the market did not rise 700% in one year. These properties WILL see a substantial increase in taxation due to the change in land use and evaluation. Whether or not, of course, it is enough of an increase, is up for debate.

The firehall motion was defeated on the same 5-3 vote with Mayor Froese, Councillors Arnason, Long, Kunst, Whitmarsh opposed and Councillor Richter absent.

Finally back to the main motion, Councillor Steve Ferguson reminded the audience that he has been a supporter of the “exceptional” Gloucester Estates since 1987, but this particular development needs some additional work. It is interesting to note, even if Councillor Ferguson did not mention it, that he was one of the Councillors, and the only current Councillor, who originally opposed the original 2010 application (as opposed to Councillors Long and Richter, who both supported the application going to the ALC).

Woodward concluded his attack on the application with the following closing:

I don’t see it as a priceless benefit. I see it as 3.5 acres for 35 acres. I see it as 35 acres that came OUT of the ALR for 3.5 acres that’s already IN the ALR. I can’t THINK, I don’t even know how I would negotiate a worse deal than this and still call it a deal.

Councillor Eric Woodward

Councillor Arnason closed with a diatribe that advocated for more wetlands being protected and remediated like this with no notion of the lost of rural land. It would be quite obvious from her speech and her vote that she believes wetlands are worth 10X more than farmland:

I really reject this notion that this is a huge taxpayer burden that’s suddenly going to come upon us… I would think, quite contrarily, that what will really be a huge taxpayer burden is if we do not start to implement more of these types of plans. So I DON’T CARE if its by a railway track, I don’t care if its denigrated land. The whole thing is we need more wetlands, we need more carbon sequestration, and in fact, the taxpayers will be burdened if we don’t start doing this because they will pay $3-5 more for every dollar we spend on climate mitigation… that is an economic fact.

Councillor Petrina Arnason

Although she asked for a scholarly academic study on the multiplier negotiation, she did not, however, provide any resources for her claim that taxpayers will spend 300-500% if we don’t do this. She did not seem to want to admit that industrial concrete lands are exponentially more environmentally damaging than rural farmland, but I suppose that is the inconvenient truth that selective environmentalism leads us to.

The application approved along the trend:

3 comments

  1. Selective environmentalism indeed. Incredibly disappointing to see this decision. As more and more land becomes uninhabitable and unfarmable due to climate change and as our population in BC and Canada continues to grow, we will come to realize we can’t eat money or industrial jobs and that we have gone done a very dangerous path. But by then it will be too late.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a horrible deal for the Twonship of Langley at best! The five that voted for it only did so to benefit themselves and to openly go against Mr. Woodward. Froese speaking of jobs is a joke, almost every single business around there has huge signs saying “help wanted”, we don’t need more places competing for workers, that will only drive the wages up and drive up the cost for whatever it is they do or sell and speed up inflation helping the recession that is coming. This majority on Council that did this should all be voted out next election.

    Like

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