COLUMN: Delta’s Southlands debate is nothing new

Fight over Delta’s Southlands has raged for years, writes PAN columnist Frank Bucholtz

Once again, the Southlands property in Delta is the subject of a public hearing.

The debate over this large piece of property in South Delta has been going on for more than 40 years and has led to some significant changes in the way farmland exclusion and regional-planning matters are handled.

Yet, for this property – once better known as the Spetifore property, for the family that farmed it for years – little has changed.

A portion of the original Spetifore land along the foreshore has become parkland, but the bulk of it remains surrounded by urban development.

While I cannot claim to have been present at the very start of this debate, I was covering the Greater Vancouver Regional District meetings in the early 1980s when the debate on this echoed from the walls of the Burnaby council chambers, which at that time hosted GVRD (now Metro Vancouver) board meetings.

At that time, there was overt hostility from Delta’s then-mayor, Ernie Burnett, over regional politicians taking part in a debate about land use in Delta. He felt that debate belonged within Delta – a viewpoint eventually adopted by the provincial government, which took away most (but not all) regional powers over land use.

The Spetifore land was originally within the Agricultural Land Reserve but was removed in 1981 in a controversial move that changed the way exclusions were handled by the province. Exclusion became less political, and the emotional nature of the debates over farmland gradually eased.

However, for whatever reason, this large parcel of land continues to bring out a lot of emotion. Perhaps it is because its exclusion was controversial in 1981. Many Tsawwassen residents do not want more development in their quiet enclave, although many business owners in the area would welcome some more customers.

Plans for a shopping mall on Tsawwassen First Nation land would obviously make more sense with more residents in the area.

A suggestion at the public hearings this week that the land be sold to the TFN if it isn’t rezoned this time should cause opponents to think twice. If it became part of TFN lands, the local council and local residents would have no say in how it would be developed.

It is ironic that the current proponent of developing the land is Century Group, owned by the Hodgins family. George Hodgins was involved in much of the original development of Tsawwassen, which took off after the opening of the George Massey Tunnel in 1959.

From my study of the proposed use of the land, it appears that the majority will be left in a natural state, either as parkland or farmland. Housing and commercial development would be built on the edges of the property, on both the eastern and western halves.

There is some urban development on the east side in the Boundary Bay area, and it is understandable that residents there would object to a large number (950 have been proposed) of new homes nearby. From a planning perspective, the best area for the bulk of new homes would be on the west side, adjacent to the more developed part of Tsawwassen and shopping and commercial areas.

Delta council will likely be handling this proposal with a 10-foot pole. A decision in 1989, after the longest public hearing in Canada, to allow rezoning of the property brought about an almost-total turfing of council at the next election, and the rezoning was promptly overturned.

That election in 1990 drew a 55 per cent turnout at the polls, which is almost certainly a modern-day record for turnout in a larger Metro Vancouver municipality.

Given that the province plans to replace the Massey tunnel with a new bridge, and that there will be intensive development on TFN lands, it seems reasonable to allow development on a portion of the Southlands property.

However, the emotional appeals of opponents of the project may well convince council to again deny this application.

If so, it will be interesting to see what steps developer Sean Hodgins will take next.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.