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There’s trouble right here in Berry City [Peter Mitham]

ABBOTSFORD – Abbotsford prides itself on being a city in the country but lurking within the heart of its farmland, behind windbreaks and old barn doors, are evils so banal that no one notices them. Trucks and RVs sit silent, workers fashion cabinets for the kitchens in the city core, and processing and retail operations capitalize on the bounty of the surrounding countryside.

Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun looks at it all and says bluntly: “We’ve got to get a hold of this, and we’re going to do it.”

Activities that many might consider innocuous uses of Abbotsford’s farmland are in fact violations of provincial and civic policies set out in legislation governing the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) – which encompasses more than 72,000 acres, or 75%, of the city’s land area – and local bylaws.

“There’s a lot of things happening in the ALR that shouldn’t be happening in the ALR … manufacturing taking place in old chicken barns and things like that,” Braun says.

All told, he says there are at least 450 parcels where city staff know non-compliant activities are taking place. While the issue isn’t a new one, the city’s previous efforts to address it haven’t been comprehensive.

However, with the province updating its province-wide inventory of agricultural land uses (the most recent inventory for Abbotsford occurred in 2012) and the city having recently revised its Official Community Plan (OCP), the time is right to tackle activities on agricultural land.

“We’re trying to get a snapshot of the local agricultural sector and what they’re doing and we’ve engaged various government agencies, industry stakeholders and industry committees,” Braun says.

The initiative was approved March 14 and initial engagement with stakeholders occurred in March and April. Known as AgRefresh, the exercise will, according to the city, “review municipal agricultural policies, bylaws and regulations for land in the ALR, and establish a framework for ongoing bylaw compliance.”

The issue isn’t unique to Abbotsford; elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, municipalities such as Richmond and Delta have faced pressure to address the dumping of unauthorized fill on farm properties. Questions over commercial activities, and how these should be regulated and taxed have also surfaced from time to time.

The issues in Abbotsford are similar but fuelled by the city’s growth as well as a bust in berry prices. With the city’s supply of industrial land in short supply, there was a bid to exclude and rezone 225 acres along Bradner Road adjacent to Langley’s Gloucester Industrial Estates for industrial use.

Land commissioners nixed the application, but that hasn’t stopped berry growers from seeking to erect processing plants and cold storage facilities to accommodate excess fruit in the face of low prices.

Meanwhile, some owners have sought to complement farm income with alternative income streams, such as vehicle parking.

“We don’t want to come down so hard that farmers can’t farm,” Braun said. “We have to look at this and say, ‘Is this where we really want to go?’ … None of these things are going to be easy discussions but it’s something we need to do.”

This fall, city staff will complete their review of information gathered during consultations earlier in the year and compiled as part of the lands inventory. A report to council will include recommendations regarding steps to improve management of the city’s farm lands and address non-compliant activities. Bylaws entrenching the recommendations in civic legislations could be ready in early 2017. However, those bylaws must first pass muster with the province.

Abbotsford is among the handful of municipalities that must submit any bylaws relating to agriculture to Victoria for approval. It was among the first municipalities consulted regarding potential changes to right to farm legislation last year (a review that has so far left the 20-year-old BC Farm Practices Protection Act untouched), and Braun is looking forward to ministerial approval of its proposals.

Braun points to a beefed up budget for the Agricultural Land Commission and increased resources for enforcement of regulations as a sign that the province will welcome support in tackling non-compliant activities.

Braun expects some landowners to challenge the crackdown but he points out that just because the city didn’t prosecute some offenses in the past didn’t make them any more legal. With seven bylaws officers for a city that in 2009 held the dubious distinction of being the homicide capital of Canada, the city’s law enforcement resources were simply over-stretched.

“We can’t tackle this all at once because we’d have to hire 20 bylaw compliance officers, but we’re going to take the most egregious and work our way down,” Braun said. “We have to rein this in so we can actually manage our agricultural lands, or our agricultural lands are going to disappear.”

Vol.102 Issue 9

1 Final 916.pdf