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Port stance on farmland could change any time, says mayor

Port Metro Vancouver president and CEO Robin Silvester. - Port Metro Vancouver
Port Metro Vancouver president and CEO Robin Silvester.
— image credit: Port Metro Vancouver

Port Metro Vancouver's boss entered Richmond City Hall this week with a mouthful on recent activities. He left with an earful from civic politicians.

Richmond has kept a watchful eye on port growth ever since the federal agency bought 81 hectares (200 acres) of East Richmond farmland five years ago as a "strategic acquisition."

It's still farmland today, and port CEO Robin Silvester told council Monday there still aren't plans to develop it, noting a five-year farm lease extension is in the works.

"You have no current plans," responded Mayor Brodie Brodie. "I realize you're coming and saying this in good faith, but that could change immediately—any time."

The farm is protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve—as are other lands in Delta and Barnston Island where development is a possibility—and it's unclear whether the port would need Agricultural Land Commission approval to industrialize farm properties.

"It's unlikely to change in the short term," said Silvester. "We would sincerely hope there is not a need to change the use of those lands."

Said Brodie: "You realize that we see our farmland as forever, and not just for five or 10 years."

"We see industrial land the same way," countered Silvester.

Metro Vancouver's industrial land base is shrinking, according to the port's draft land use plan. Industrial land in the region has shrunk 27 per cent in the past 25 years, and redevelopment or re-designation of lands to uses such as residential is to blame, the port says.

Port officials say available lands will only satisfy demand for the next 10 years.

Richmond council doesn't want farmland to feed the industrial need. Nor do regional politicians from Metro Vancouver, who recently called on the federal government to ban the port from encroaching on farmland.

But pressure for industrial land is only expected to intensify. Deltaport's proposed Terminal 2 is a container terminal project that would expand container shipping capacity four-fold. Still subject to environmental review, the terminal could be operating by the early 2020s, council heard.

Silvester told council the port is looking at any industrial land that comes to market. Last year it bought a a 26.6-hectare (65.6-acre) property at 13800 and 14000 Steveston Hwy.—land previously owned by auto importer Fraser Wharves Ltd. Similar operations will continue, Silvester said. The region's other auto terminal operator, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, will expand onto the site.

Another recent source of tension between Richmond and the port is the now-approved jet fuel pipeline project, which the port reviewed on behalf of the federal government.

Coun. Derek Dang asked the port president how the agency calls itself sustainable and a partner of Richmond—which objected to the project for reasons that include inadequate fire protection—and still endorsed the pipeline project.

Said Silvester: "It's about having conversations about having the right balance. It's never as simple as yes or no. So we welcome the opportunity to engage with council on these issues. We welcome the opportunity to engage with staff."

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