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neighbourhood watch

Urban sprawl – or as Sean Hodgins prefers to call it, rural renewal – is creeping toward farmland in Tsawwassen.

The president of developer Century Group believes in a new urbanism for his proposed Southlands residential project, which would place a farmers' market among single-family homes, townhouses and row houses. So the negative connotation of urban sprawl is out – and reshaping the debate is in. Mr. Hodgins argues that Tsawwassen's quaint Boundary Bay neighbourhood is in dire need of a greater variety of housing to accommodate empty-nesters seeking to downsize and first-time home buyers who want to live in multi-unit projects. Such places would be more affordable than a typical Tsawwassen single-family home, which sold for nearly $706,000 last month.

An affiliate of Century Group owns 537 acres of agricultural property in Tsawwassen, which is part of the community of Delta. Mr. Hodgins wants to develop 107 acres, or 20 per cent of it. The remaining 430 acres would be donated to Delta, with suitable parcels designated for lease to the next generation of farmers. "I live here in Tsawwassen. I'm trying to improve the community. The reason that developments do well is that they respond to community needs," Mr. Hodgins said. "The voices of those who fight against us are the shrillest voices."

Architect Patrick Cotter's designs feature cottage-style residences with common areas such as shared gardens. Instead of large buffers between agriculture and new development, residents of the Southlands district would embrace the location next to farming. Some of the proceeds from selling homes would go toward improving drainage of the low-lying property in Tsawwassen, 35 kilometres south of Vancouver. The farmers' market would borrow elements of Vancouver's Granville Island. Think fresh produce and, eventually, space for arts and cultural events. The architect also conjures up images of an English country village.

Richmond resident Beth Clinton, whose family is considering moving to Tsawwassen, acknowledges the pros and cons in the debate. She liked a cottage-style show home on display at Tsawwassen Town Centre Mall, which is owned by the Hodgins family's Century Group. "The concept is fantastic, but the problem is that the Southlands area is not currently a residential area. It is green space and farmland, and people get upset that it might be turned into residential," Ms. Clinton said.

The fate of Southlands will rest with Delta municipal councillors. A public information meeting is set for May 23 on the developer's plans for 950 units, a scaled-down version of a 2009 proposal for 1,900 units. Council will meet on June 10 to decide whether to recommend taking the next steps, notably scheduling public hearings for Sept. 10-11 to discuss rezoning and amendments to the official community plan.

Plans to develop the Southlands properties date back to the early 1980s, when it was removed from the province's Agricultural Land Reserve. Many residents, who enjoy Tsawwassen's laid-back lifestyle and the single-family homes on large lots, want to preserve Boundary Bay as a refuge from big-city densification.

Dana Maslovat, a spokesman for an anti-Southlands group, lives in Boundary Bay and is a kinesiology professor at Langara College in Vancouver. He said Tsawwassen residents have repeatedly opposed rezoning plans. "Tsawwassen has been whacking this mole for more than 20 years, and it keeps rearing its head," said Mr. Maslovat, whose group is called Southlands: The Facts. He said the developer's vision for an eco-friendly neighbourhood on farmland has polarized residents.

"What attracted many people to the outskirts was to get away from densification," Mr. Maslovat noted.

Tsawwassen needs renewal. The community, which has more than 21,000 residents, faces retail and housing competition in the region. The Tsawwassen Springs development near a golf course will add 450 residential units. And the Tsawwassen First Nation plans 2,000 units in the Tsawwassen Shores venture, with a sprawling shopping complex.

But the Southlands project is a divisive topic. Opponents fear heavy traffic on Boundary Bay Road, especially huge trucks that would carry infill to and from the flood plain. "I don't expect sympathy from Vancouverites because we want a certain quiet lifestyle, but the Southlands project will take away agricultural land," Mr. Maslovat said.