Surrey Council approves plan to protect ‘unique’ highly fertile farmland from development

Ron Heppell grows potatoes from the farmland of Campbell Heights in Surrey.  The city has decided to lobby for the land to be added to the province's agricultural land reserve.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - photo credit)

Ron Heppell grows potatoes from the farmland of Campbell Heights in Surrey. The city has decided to lobby for the land to be added to the province’s agricultural land reserve. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC – photo credit)

Surrey Council supports the agricultural future of a large tract of extremely fertile farmland that has been threatened by future development in the fast-growing city, but First Nations in the area say the protection is an unwanted complication in talks over land claims.

The council voted unanimously Monday to support the Agricultural Land Commission’s (ALC) proposal to place 123 acres of land in Campbell Heights on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

“We’ve had a massive loss of productive farmland,” Coun said. Mike Bose, before the vote. “This country is unique. There is no substitute for it anywhere in Canada, and I would say North America.”

ALR land is protected from non-agricultural use, with a number of restrictions on development and construction activities.

The land at 192nd Street and 36th Avenue was highlighted for its fertility. Three generations of the Heppell family have managed it since the 1970s.

They say it produces between 30 and 50 million servings of fresh vegetables like potatoes, carrots and cabbage annually — enough for one serving on the plate of every Metro Vancouverite for two to three weeks.

Maggie McPherson/CBC

Maggie McPherson/CBC

Advocates have said that protecting the land for future agricultural uses will help local food security, especially as the cost of importing produce from the US continues to rise and climate change will affect food production for years to come.

The federal government owns the land but has leased about two-thirds of it to the Heppells. She has declared the land as surplus and wants to sell it.

City of Surrey officials have noted that if the city, region or province expresses an interest in the land during the sale process, measures to protect the land for agriculture could feed into that process.

First Nations express concern

Kate Newman, a researcher at the University of the Fraser Valley’s Food and Agriculture Institute, says that while the decision to add the land to the reserve or not is entirely up to the province’s ALC, it rules out the possibility of a community-requested review the decision that could turn the process upside down.

“And if [the city is] to support makes it very unlikely that any resistance to this decision will succeed,” Newman said.

Maggie McPherson/CBC

Maggie McPherson/CBC

Newman says the only groups that could make a significant push to keep land off our reservation are the First Nations. A group of three local First Nations – Katzie, Kwantlen and Semiahmoo or KSS – have expressed objections to bringing the country into the ALR.

A law firm representing the nations says ALR restrictions for the country would violate their rights and the commission failed to properly consult with the nations first, as the law requires.

“KKS ancestors occupied, governed, administered, and used the lands, waters, and resources of their territories, which included the [Campbell Heights] country, since time immemorial. The country formed part of a landscape that was critical to the socio-economy of KKS, including in relation to travel, trade and resource harvesting,” reads a contribution from a public consultation.

“The country remains culturally, spiritually and economically important to KKS, and its members continue to exercise their rights in this area, except where they have been restricted due to government regulation, displacement and development.”

A Katzie First Nation official said Tuesday night chiefs from the three First Nations are currently in Ottawa to meet with lawmakers and federal ministers about the country.

They are seeking a solution that “respects the interests of the various stakeholders involved, while recognizing the vital importance of this land to the three nations and the federal government’s commitment to the implementation of indigenous rights and UNDRIP.”

The Katzie representative said the land in Surrey is a “cornerstone” of Indigenous rights and reconciliation for the three First Nations and talks have been going on for over a decade.

farmers happy

For their part, the Heppells are enthusiastic about the council’s support for the conservation of farmland.

Tyler Heppell says with increasing public awareness of the importance of food security amid rising food prices, keeping local farmland productive is the right thing to do.

“There will never be another piece of land like this for farming in British Columbia,” Heppell said. “We have to protect it and keep it in agriculture because that is the highest benefit.”

The Agricultural Land Commission says the possibility of protecting the land will be considered “in early 2023.”


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