Anne Murray: Public must be watchdogs for Fraser delta development
In a never-ending saga, Fraser delta farmland and Burns Bog wildlife habitat are once again under threat of development. Developers just do not seem to understand the word no.
This time around, enticing tradeoffs are being planned for the MK Delta Lands Group property on the north Delta side of Burns Bog, the Southlands development (formerly the Spetifore Farm) in South Delta, and Port Metro Vancouver’s latest scheme for yet another container terminal (T2) at Roberts Bank. These tradeoffs are a sign that public pressure in support of the environment is paying off. Farmland, wildlife, and bog advocates are rallying against these latest proposals, as developers’ gifts are not always what they seem.
The Fraser delta has international and national importance to wildlife, and the state of our surrounding landscape plays a key role in the quality of life for local residents.
The public has a chance to speak out against the intensifying loss of what was once called the Green Zone. This key part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan includes watersheds, major parks, farmlands, wildlife, habitat, and wetlands. The Green Zone was adopted following the intensive input of thousands of people, who strongly agreed with the strategy that “Green Zone lands will be protected from urbanization in perpetuity”.
That was then.
In 2011, Metro Vancouver discarded this popular plan, replacing it with a Regional Growth Strategy focusing on industrial and job development, in line with provincial and federal government policies. Farmland and wildlife habitat protection was downplayed. The easily visualized term Green Zone was largely discarded, and the line between urban and rural became the “Urban Containment Boundary”.
Green zones, in use around a number of cities in the world including London, England, have served to protect valuable rural landscapes adjacent to metropolitan areas. The North Shore watersheds, Burns Bog, and the Fraser delta agricultural lands should still be considered to be part of Metro Vancouver’s Green Zone. Furthermore, Metro Vancouver still retains power to control many developments in this region.
For example, the area of Burns Bog proposed for development by MK Delta Lands Group is currently zoned Conservation and Recreation in the Regional Growth Strategy. Amid public pressure, the Metro Vancouver Board sent the proposal back to Delta municipality as it had not yet had a public hearing.
The developer pulled the original project and is now coming forward with a sweetened version. They are offering to add 78 hectares of Burns Bog on the west side of Highway 91 to the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area. This wildlife habitat contiguous with the protected lands should never have been considered for development anyway.
Meanwhile, 36 hectares at 10770 72nd Avenue on the eastern side of the property, are still slated for a retail commercial area. This area is low-lying, vegetated, and has 21 metres of underlying peat, according to the hydrological report.
The Burns Bog Conservation Society has collected 5,000 signatures on a petition strongly opposing the loss of this wetland habitat. Delta council will be hearing from the developer at a meeting on Monday (September 23), at the Kennedy Seniors' Recreation Centre (11760 88th Avenue, North Delta). The developer is also holding public information sessions in September and October.
The Southlands development in south Delta has been stewing for years and I described some of this saga in an earlier column. All summer, Tsawwassen residents visiting their local mall have faced the sight of a fully built house sitting in the centre, designed to showcase the new development by Sean Hodgins of Century Group.
His tradeoff to entice the populace to accept his proposal for 950 units of condominiums, houses, and commercial space on the Southlands is the donation of 80 percent of the 217.1-hectare property as farmland for Delta municipality to own and lease. The details are unclear, lost in the hazy glow of pictures of people cycling, walking, and shopping in farm markets.
For years, successive developers have argued that the land could not be farmed although it is zoned agricultural. Critics argued otherwise, as the property has been used to successfully grow potatoes and pasture cattle in the past. It is also important wildlife habitat adjacent to Boundary Bay, part of the Fraser River estuary Ramsar site (wetland of international importance). Now, Hodgins is arguing the merits of his donated farmland as tradeoff for his housing development.
In the past, residents were virtually unanimous in their opposition to development on the Southlands. To date, the majority of written responses on the new proposal have continued that opposition. South Delta is facing enormous changes with the construction of the South Fraser Perimeter Road dicing up the farmland, massive developments planned and ongoing on the Tsawwassen First Nation lands, and the unknown situation with the 226 hectares of farmland optioned by Port Metro Vancouver for port-related industrial land.
Yet there may be signs that people are wearying of the struggle to maintain the integrity of this unique farmland in the heart of the community. The developer is persuasive, dangling many enticements and downplaying the negative aspects of flood-proofing and increased traffic. He has the money and resources to rally a core group of supporters that may be intimidating to those with dissenting views. What is not at doubt is that the public hearings on October 28 and 29 will be packed. More information can be found at the Corporation of Delta's website and at Save the Southlands.
I have also previously written on the impacts on Port Metro Vancouver’s terminals and associated transportation networks for container trucks and coal trains. The T2 terminal, an additional 115-hectare artificial island to be added to the existing causeway and pods on Roberts Bank, has been in the planning stage for some years, although this fact was carefully avoided when it came to cumulative impact assessments during other Environmental Assessment processes, such as the Third Berth and the Deltaport Terminal, Road and Rail Improvement Project.
To mitigate future habitat losses, and to present an environmentally friendly front to a cynical public, the port is embarking on “habitat banking” schemes, an approach increasingly used world-wide when habitat is likely to be destroyed. Habitat is purchased, improved, or restored at offsite locations to mitigate the effects of lost habitat at the project site. It is unproven whether it will effectively protect local wildlife populations and maintain biodiversity. Newly created or enhanced habitat often does not survive in the state for which it was designed, or the location is wrong.
For example, a B.C. Ferries eelgrass habitat compensation at Roberts Bank turned into salt marsh rather than eelgrass. Log removal on Boundary Bay, the subject of recent public protests, will not compensate for mud flat habitat loss around the port causeway. Many animal species are very sensitive to particular locations and habitat details that may be difficult to replicate elsewhere. By destroying the original rich habitats, as for example those at Roberts Bank, the species using the area are placed at risk. Pre-consultation on T2 is now beginning and the public can attend.
It takes enormous amounts of time and effort by the public to keep track of, monitor, evaluate, and comment on all these developments, which are just a fraction of those occurring currently. All too often, people just do not have time between work and family commitments. Yet those who do squeeze a moment out of their busy lives to take part in this democratic process are helping ensure that the public has a choice. There are many times when public pressure has forced politicians to choose a better option, or to modify proposals to better suit common priorities.
Our role as watchdogs is essential. Public voices must be heard.