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Metro's growth strategy likely to cause legal problems: lawyer

Metro Vancouver's recently-released regional growth strategy is "likely to actually cause legal problems" for Metro, according to an analysis by West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL).

The strategy, released earlier this month, identifies two areas of land in Aldergrove and Richmond as being available for urban residential development, even though these lands are part of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

"Urban development is not an allowed use under the Agricultural Land Reserve, and under the. . . Agricultural Land Commission Act, every government in B.C. is supposed to be making sure their policies are consistent with the act," said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with WCEL.

Metro Vancouver was even warned about this inconsistency, twice, by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). In October, ALC executive director Brian Underhilll wrote to Metro Vancouver's policy and planning department in response to a draft of the growth strategy document. He wrote:

"From the Commissions perspective, the most important outstanding issues are the two instances where the Urban Containment Boundary encroaches into the Agricultural Land Reserve. At Aldergrove, the encroachment areas to the north and south of the existing urban area are proposed for a General Urban designation; the encroachment area to the north of the existing industrial area is proposed for an Industrial designation. In Richmond, the encroachment area bounded by Westminster Highway, Garden City Road, Alderbridge Way and Shell Road is proposed for a General Urban designation. These designations are not consistent with the Agricultural Land Commission Act..."

In November, ALC chair Richard Bullock wrote again to the Metro Vancouver board of directors outlining the inconsistencies.

In Richmond, the area in question is an urban farm and park called Garden City Lands. Gage noted that a citizens' group, Garden City Lands Coalition, first brought the issue to the attention of West Coast Environmental Law. "We thought it was important to comment publicly on that," said Gage.

Gage's analysis notes that when asked to respond to the inconsistencies, Metro Vancouver communications specialist Glenn Bohn stated that the regional growth strategy plan on the whole supports agriculture.

"Generally, their position was that, first of all, these lands were identified for urban residential use under the old regional growth strategy," said Gage. "That just means that it was illegal before and it's illegal now."

Metro board chair Lois Jackson could not be reached for comment.

ALC executive director Brian Underhill told The Tyee that "first and foremost, there's a lot of positive and supportive aspects to the strategy" as far as agriculture is concerned.

He said that if the inconsistencies remain in the regional growth strategy, which still has to be ratified by Metro's member municipalities, they "are of no force or effect."

"The commission does not anticipate that it would need to do anything," said Underhill.

Underhill also said that the commission is working with Metro Vancouver as it helps member municipalities develop official community plans, to make sure those plans are consistent with the ALC act.

Gage also said that there are a lot of positives in the regional growth strategy.

"I don't want to leave the impression that the regional growth strategy as a whole undermines agriculture," Gage said. "West Coast Environmental Law isn't against the regional growth strategy."

"The question mark," said Gage, "is how widespread is this problem?"

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee

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