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Farmers take protest to city hall

By MATTHEW HOEKSTRA
January 17, 2013 · Updated 4:04 PM
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Farmers and neighbours upset over asphalt dumping on a Finn Road farm property took their frustration to city hall Thursday—with their tractors.

Protesters drove two tractors—one towing a trailer carrying broken pavement and rebar—up No. 3 Road and parked on city hall grounds following a day-long blockade of the farm.

“Will this grow food? Absolutely not,” said protest leader Ray Galawan, holding up a piece of asphalt. “The oil out of here will be leach into the soil and that’s the end of our Class 1 farmland.”

The group is urging lawmakers to help stop the dumping of asphalt and other demolition materials on the farm, at 9360 Finn Rd., and remove what’s already been trucked in.

Trucks began dumping material on the former pumpkin farm late December. The farm’s new leaseholders are using it to build an access road for a new farm operation—potentially a tree nursery.

Neighbours have been watching loads come in, and Galawan, a retired farmer, said he had to do something after watching a load of “highly toxic” asphalt dumped on fertile soil. So on Wednesday he and farmer Bob Featherstone blocked the property’s driveway with tractors while neighbours hoisted signs that read “Food not fill” and “Save our soil.”

“Enough’s enough,” said Galawan. “Nobody else is stopping it. I’ve tried every avenue I can think of. We’re getting no help, no answers, so I thought we have to do this to stop it ourselves.”

Some neighbours have also complained about concrete “the size of bathtubs” being dumped on the site.

Harold Steves met with the dozen protestors to express their support, and committed to working with the Agricultural Land Commission to find a resolution to the issue and future fill projects.

City of Richmond spokesperson Ted Townsend  met with protestors and said city council’s motion Monday appears to have been a success.

“Council’s already passed a motion requesting the (land commission) to suspend the fill operation and we believe that’s happened. The next step is we’ll continue to have discussions with the (commission) as to how we can better manage these fill applications going forward.”

Council has requested the fill operation be put on hold until the city and its agricultural advisory committee have a chance to review the file.

Thomas Loo, a compliance and enforcement officer with the Agricultural Land Commission, visited the farm this week and said he didn’t see anything that would be in contravention of the Agricultural Land Commission Act. He said the act doesn’t prohibit the use of recycled concrete or asphalt for farm road construction.

“We’ve seen it used in the cranberry industry as part of their berm/road system,” he said. “The issue seems to be related to the size of it, which we’ll be working with the landowner and agent to have it processed on site to more reasonable sizes for road construction.”

Large concrete pieces will serve as the road’s lower base, and allow for easier removal if the land use is changed, Loo said. Proponents have been asked to remove rebar from the land, and have suggested a sorting area be created to remove any inappropriate materials trucked in, he added.

One of the farm’s leaseholders is Bill Jones, the longtime operator of a former nursery on Westminster Highway. He called the protest against his project “pretty vicious.”

“What this is all about is some rather vicious people trying to make a point, because it’s frankly a case of sour grapes,” said Jones, declining to elaborate.

Jones said he has approval from the Agricultural Land Commission for the road project.

“What we’re doing is totally legal according to the Agricultural Land Commission who monitors the site routinely,” he said. “Any farmer, any farmer, such as cranberry farmers, for instance, are entitled to build access roads without permission from anyone. The materials we use can be any number of things.”

Harold Steves said since the provincial government has “gutted” the Agricultural Land Commission, more and more “unchecked” dumping is happening on Richmond farms.

Steves suggested on farms with Class 1 soil, which he said is found south of Steveston Highway, new road beds shouldn’t be permitted unless they can easily be removed.

“The whole fill issue in Richmond is out of control,” he said. “We can’t change provincial law, but certainly I think there should be a major decision on road beds, that there should be no fill like blacktop and concrete, that cannot be easily removed.”