Anne Murray: The future of Delta’s Southlands hangs in the balance

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      Farmland or urban development? That is the issue South Delta residents will be debating when we attend public hearings October 28 to 30 on the future of the Southlands property. Once known as the Spetifore farm and famous for its potatoes, the Southlands have long been a source of contention in the community. It became the subject of  the longest public hearing in Canadian history in 1989, when Tsawwassen Developments Ltd. tried to rezone it for housing. Remember “Say No to TDL”? A citizen-organized plebiscite at the time had a higher turn-out than any municipal election with 98 percent opposed to developing the farmland. Public pressure then pushed through the designation of the Boundary Bay Regional Park on the border of the property.

      Subsequently acquired by the Hodgins family, the Southlands continued as farmland and the forest area was kept intact. An extensive public consultation process during the update of Delta’s official community plan involved a long series of evening meetings, duly attended by local residents. The process once again confirmed the A1 agricultural designation for the land. Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy also has it lying outside the urban containment boundary. Residents spoke up once again at yet more public hearings in 2011, as Delta municipality attempted to return the land to the ALR, but the public was split on the issue and the hearings were abruptly curtailed. A fear had developed that farming could include industrial agriculture, particularly the construction of greenhouses.  

      Since 2006, Sean Hodgins, president of Century Group, has renewed efforts for subdivision development. An initial application for about 1,800 residential units fell by the wayside, and the company is now back with a proposal for 950 units, mostly adjacent to Boundary Bay village, on 45 hectares or 20 percent of the overall 217-hectare property. The remainder of the land would be ceded to Delta and retained as agriculture, park, and wildlife habitat.

      The fundamentals of the Southlands’ unique location and attributes have not changed during the passing years. This rural property lies close to Boundary Bay, part of the Fraser Estuary Important Bird Area, the most highly rated in Canada for globally significant numbers and diversity of migrating and wintering birds. Such land close to the bay was recognized by Environment Canada as among the most critical habitat for thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds using the delta uplands. The coast also has the highest number and diversity of wintering birds of prey in Canada, including eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons. The Southlands’ importance as wildlife habitat is becoming ever more essential as other farmland is destroyed. The addition of 2,000 or more residents to the area would result in a noticeable decrease in the habitat value, even with the best intentions. Cats, dogs, glass windows, and traffic do not mix well with wild nature.

      The land is in the traditional territory of several First Nations, including Semiahmoo, Katzie, Tsawwassen, and Saanich of the Gulf Islands and southern Vancouver Island, as well as Washington state’s Lummi Tribe. Extensive middens are present in this general region of Boundary Bay, and some were part of the historic Whalen Farm excavation. It may be that construction in the southern part of the Southlands will turn up burials, as happened for Century’s recently aborted housing project in Marpole. The Musqueam subsequently purchased that land to protect their ancestral burial ground.

      In February 2006, a storm surge swept over the undiked stretch of beach at Boundary Bay, flooding two hundred houses in the village and Beach Grove. Sea level is rising and storm surges will potentially become more frequent. For this reason, an engineering report commissioned by the B.C. government recommends against building communities in flood plains. The area is also very vulnerable to liquefaction in the event of an earthquake. While much of the lowlands of Delta and Richmond are similarly vulnerable, this is not a reason to encourage new growth in such regions, particularly when there are alternatives. The existing town centre of Tsawwassen is on high ground and has space for increased housing density. In the case of future calamities, the question of municipal responsibility and insurance payments could become an issue, as in the recent Alberta floods.   

      In the excitement over the offer of farm and parkland to Delta municipality, council should not forget to look critically at the actual development proposal and its implications. The Delta community has put up with years and years of meetings, protest, discussion, action, and negotiation. There should be no rush to give Century Group free rein even if elements of the package are attractive. The devil’s in the details, and there are many of them. The application requires approval of four amendment bylaws, a development permit application, and a development variance permit application, as well as a controversial Phased Development Agreement (PDA) bylaw. Such agreements are an entirely new legal tool. According to West Coast Environmental Law, “they violate a basic principle of democracy – a democratically elected government of today should not be allowed to bind the democratically elected government of tomorrow. PDAs allow a government to do just that – guaranteeing a private developer that no matter how problematic later phases of a development prove to be – future Councils will not be allowed to represent their constituents.” In the Southlands case, the PDA would be locked in place for 20 years. The farmland handed over to Delta could also come under pressure for development in future years, with claims that it is isolated and too small to farm efficiently.

      The proposed housing is designed to be a mix of types, including condominiums and town houses, not just the “cottage” style that Century is showcasing. It is likely the higher density will be built first. A relaxed lifestyle is strongly touted, with images of people shopping for farm produce and cycling to the town centre. This is a current and popular marketing ploy for subdivisions which will in practice be occupied in the same way as any other community. Tsawwassen residents already have access to local farm foods, and cycling is still more of a recreational pursuit than a means of transport for most people in the suburbs. Driveways will be full of cars, just as they are now, and the increased traffic prospects for this congested peninsula are a huge concern for existing residents, who already face long travel times in and out of the community. The addition of mega malls on the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) land and more residential traffic from the plethora of new developments in and around Delta and the TFN lands will greatly aggravate the situation. The urbanization of the area, together with choices linked to demographics, may result in residents moving away, rather than creating a more vibrant community.

      Like most residents of South Delta, I care deeply about our community and have participated in every hearing into the Southlands over the last two and a half decades. Resident participation has had a major influence on our community’s growth and development in the past, and will continue to shape the future according to our values. Whether a real estate marketer’s fantasies will win out over keeping the Southlands agricultural and rural is anyone’s guess.



      Jean W.

      Oct 25, 2013 at 6:14pm

      Anne, I agree 100% with what you are saying and couldn't have said it any better. I hope people who are 'sitting on the fence' will especially read this and take heed.
      The latest community rhetoric about the ability to ride bikes along a proposed new road (right across the farmland) is ridiculous. Anyone who has a bike and wishes to can ride to the beach at the moment and/or can ride to Earthwise Garden to buy organic produce. We don't need to plant houses on a last vestige of farm land and especially one located where it is - a corner of a community bounded by water on both sides, a U.S. border on another and a very busy Highway 17.
      For me, in particular, are the many missing details of the 'proposal' - type of housing mix, adequate flood protection if this is possible on these low lying parcels of land, what would Delta even do if it acquired the land.
      Do people understand the probability of now 'flood insurance' if the homes are built?
      I wish I could have heard a proposal for viable agriculture that a local group wished to present to Council. We all might have learned something.
      Let us hope the council will pay attention and maintain quality of life in this area.

      Heather C

      Oct 26, 2013 at 8:28am

      An excellent summary of the multitude of serious issues that are connected with this proposed development.
      I am not in favor of this development.
      Has anyone noticed that many stores in the local town centre mall are now empty - what is happening to the mall? Will new housing development now replace the mall?
      I also wonder who will buy the Tsawwassen Safeway now that it is being sold?

      Doug R

      Oct 26, 2013 at 2:10pm

      I agree completely. What an excellent well researched article. There are too many hidden strings attached to this development - inparticular the latest wrinkle of a 20 year commitment. Global warming with its flooding results are a REAL concern on Boundary Bay. We can't keep building higher walls & berms to protect waterfront developments. TOTALLY wrong location for this project!

      Stan Rogers

      Oct 26, 2013 at 4:06pm

      Wait. This wasn't written by the legendary Canadian singer.

      Mike Gildersleeve

      Oct 26, 2013 at 4:31pm

      Another voice that is steadfastly opposed to this project. This project tips the scale against nature and is one comprimise too many. This larger intact area of precious agricultural land is becoming increasingly rare in the Lower Mainland and should be left as is for all the reasons highlighted so well in this article.

      Wilma H

      Oct 26, 2013 at 5:25pm

      well said as always Anne.With farmland under threat all over the world, being bought up by hedge fund managers etc we must preserve every inch of farmland for food sovereignty.

      Debbie M

      Oct 26, 2013 at 5:34pm

      This article does a great job of explaining the main issues and problems with this proposed development. It is truly sad that Tsawwassen has had to be commenting on and trying to protect this unique area almost continually since 2007. Residents are exhausted after years of meetings and hearings that have seen the same result. The consensus has remained. Keep all the property in agriculture. Ms. Murray explained very well just how tenuous and conceptual this proposal is. The developer is seeking a zoning change that guarantees none of what the pretty pictures show. Ladner has just gone through a very negative process at Marina Garden Estates that will change the character of the area. Council said that its hands were tied by the zoning agreement arrived at 20 years ago and so were unable to respond to the anger of those who will be directly affected. Let that be a warning to us all.

      Darlene R

      Oct 26, 2013 at 5:41pm

      Totally agree with this article, well researched and well written. Century holdings is trying to sell us a mini Utopia, what we may get, if this idea is not rejected, is Hell on wheels. 60,000 plus loads of fill creating high ground that water will run down to neighbourhoods next door-Boundary Bay and beach Grove. No insurance will cover this kind of damage. Approving this will create a hugh liability for residents of S Delta for years to come.

      Cynthia Crampton

      Oct 26, 2013 at 5:42pm

      Excellent article, Anne; you have summarized the issues so well. I have been following this issue from outside of Delta for many years, and hope that a decision is made soon - one that speaks for wildlife, birds and nature. I hope that what we love about Boundary Bay is not destroyed.