Soil bylaw ‘is exactly our business,’ says mayor

A road is being built on a Finn Road farm to open access to the rest of the property.  - Matthew Hoekstra photo
A road is being built on a Finn Road farm to open access to the rest of the property.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

Charging city council with going too far—or not far enough—a packed crowd watched as elected officials unanimously approved new measures this week aimed at tightening restrictions on farmland fill.

“In terms of whether it’s any of our business, I think it’s exactly our business to worry about things like this,” said Mayor Malcolm Brodie following the 7-0 vote. “We should be monitoring the situation as closely as we can.”

A standing-room-only crowd of 125 filled council chambers Monday, giving council an earful during two hours of delegations, many still reeling from a fill project at 9360 Finn Rd. involving recycled concrete and pavement for a farm road.

Council gave first, second and third reading to a bylaw change requiring a permit for soil removal and fill projects on Agricultural Land Reserve property—even if it’s for an approved farm practice. Richmond’s current bylaw only regulates soil for non-farm uses.

City hall will now send the bylaw amendment to the province, which has jurisdiction on farmland, for approval.

Brodie cautioned even if the province—which has jurisdiction—accepts the bylaw change, the Crown’s Agricultural Land Commission can still overrule the city on soil matters.

“Hopefully the fact that everyone wants the same thing—they want to control the fill that’s on the property, they want to control the activities on the property—will be enough to make sure everybody is on the same page,” said the mayor.

Protesting the Finn Road project, Kimi Hendess said the city needs to approve “the strongest possible bylaw” to protect farmland from potentially contaminated fill.

“The (Agricultural Land Commission Act) has so many loopholes. It was crafted years and years ago, and there are different realities today of what materials are actually being brought on farms,” she told council.

Joe Oeser lives on ALR land in South Richmond and said nursery infrastructure is far less than what could have been.

“Looking at the amount of what some would call land damage from a nursery road compared to a greenhouse operation, the damage is extremely limited in a nursery operation.”

Oeser suggested council let the land commission do its job and not interfere with “legitimate farm operations.”

“Why are we here? People want the city to step into an area that is really none of their business,” said Oeser, suggesting the Finn Road protest is an example of the problems caused by the urban-rural interface.

Art Bomke, emeritus professor at University of B.C.’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, rejected that argument.

“I can assure you this is happening all over the province. It’s not just here in Richmond, it’s not just at the urban edge, it’s a problem all over the place.”

Bomke said he’s sensitive to farmers’ right to farm, but fill projects present “an unknown potential for contamination.”

Hydrogeologist Joe Davis told council asphalt itself won’t contaminate soils, but what it was exposed to in its previous existence could.

Dave Sandhu, a Richmond blueberry grower assisting Bill Jones in the nursery venture on the 13.5-hectare (33.4-acre) Finn Road property, said a solid road is needed to support a successful “large scale” operation.

“In the era that we live in today, it’s profitability. You don’t want to be going to the government for handouts because your spuds are getting soaked…or the pumpkins are rotting.”

Farmers and neighbours ceased their week-long blockade of the property last Thursday after police requested they move.

Sandhu said the project has abided by requirements set out by the land commission: large concrete pieces have been broken up and metal has been removed. As far as asphalt—which triggered the blockade—Sandhu said for all its “headaches” it’s being hauled away.

“All the asphalt was taken out,” he said. “We don’t need to put asphalt down.”

Under the city’s bylaw, any soil removal or fill projects on farmland will require a $600 permit from the city, which can refuse to issue one if the project could “reduce, damage or otherwise adversely affect the long-term agricultural viability” of the land. It also authorizes the city to issue a fine of up to $10,000 per day to anyone failing to meet bylaw or permit requirements.

Monday’s crowd was told the new requirements wouldn’t be retroactive, and senior staff warned council more bylaws staff would be required with the new regulation.

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