Metro Vancouver directors are giving the green light to a farming academy in Colony Farm Regional Park despite opposition from environmentalists who fear bird and wildlife habitat will be lost.
Members of Metro’s environment and energy committtee and the parks committee unanimously approved the plans, which are initially limited to development of a 37-hectare starter academy of small-plot farms.
The aim is to foster urban agriculture and sustainable food production.
But the Burke Mountain Naturalists raised objections that it sets a precedent to potentially till over other regional parks for agriculture.
“The suggestion this could be the thin edge of the wedge for other parks is simply a non-starter,” said Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, who sits on the environment committee. “We’re talking about specialty small plot development for educational purposes.”
Environment committee vice-chair and Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner also defended the decision, noting Metro Vancouver agreed future uses must reflect the property’s agricultural roots when the regional district acquired the Colony Farm lands in 1993.
Colony Farm was once a prize-winning dairy and livestock farm, operated by psychiatric patients from Riverview Hospital.
“This land was the land that was originally farmed,” Hepner said of the planned academy footprint. “What’s proposed there is perfectly compatible.”
Hepner called it an approval-in-principle and said she will be keeping a close eye on the potential costs of the project.
Metro plans to spend $5 million on the Colony Farm Academy, which includes spending on irrigation and drainage upgrades, a visitor services centre, a starter farm service centre and other infrastructure.
“When you start to do something like an academy of agriculture, what does that actually mean in terms of costs to the taxpayers?” she asked.
The farming academy plan had been several years in the works, but was shelved for some time to allow discussions with the Kwikwetlem First Nation over possible land claim implications.
Metro officials say the band has had a strong role shaping the plan.
Environmentalists had also criticized the use of Colony Farm for construction of salmon habitat channels to compensate for damage from the construction of the new Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 expansion.
A staff report says Colony Farm has some of the richest soils in the province and it could support small labour-intensive crop farms, along with the on-site sale of farm products.
The committees’ recommendation must still be approved by the Metro board later this month.