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.