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Cranberries being harvested at a farm in Richmond, BC.DARRYL DYCK

The price of paradise just increased exponentially.

The market value of the Garden City lands that Richmond city council this week decided to buy for $59.2-million was only $9.5-million just over four years ago, documents at the B.C. Land Title and Survey office show.

The federal Fisheries and Oceans department sold the 55-hectare site in central Richmond to Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation, in December, 2005, the documents show. Months before the sale, the federal government accepted a land claim from the Musqueam first nation and required Canada Lands to acknowledge the Musqueam as part owner of the lands.

The property is in the provincial agricultural reserve and the land can only be used for farm-related activities or be left wild. Canada Lands and the Musqueam planned to have the land removed from the reserve in order to proceed with a high density commercial and residential development. Two applications were made to take the property out of the agricultural land reserve but neither succeeded.

Richmond city councillors said in interviews the municipality was buying the property to ensure that the land remains a community resource and is not used for commercial and residential development. But council has not yet decided on how they would like the land to be used.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who voted against the offer of $59-million for the land, questioned why the majority on council agreed to the price without having a clear idea how the land would be used. "Council does not have a vision for how that land should be utilized," he said in an interview.

The proposals are diverse, from keeping the land in the agricultural reserve to applying for exemptions in order to build facilities like an arena, he said. One councillor suggested using the land as a peat bog.

"We bought the land controlled by the agricultural land commission. But what we can do with it? Neither council nor the community has a common vision. To do this without public input has some real drawbacks," Mayor Brodie said.

Richmond Councillor Greg Halsey-Brandt, who also voted against making the offer, called for a referendum on how the land should be used.

"Everyone on council would like to acquire the Garden City lands. It is right in the middle of our town,' he said. "But we all have different ideas of what it should be used for. Some say a farm to grow blueberries and cranberries, and others want park and playground and swimming pools."

He said he favours developments such as community gardens, swimming pools, ice rinks and soccer fields - uses that would require approval to take the land out of the agricultural reserve.

"In a sense the battle is just starting," Mr. Halsey-Brandt said. "Now the battle is going to heat up over what we are going to use it for, because I will be damned if we are going to use it just for growing cranberries."

He would like a referendum on whether the city should leave the land in the agricultural reserve "for growing cranberries" or should apply to take some or all of the land out of the reserve for community facilities.

In defence of the high price, Councillor Bill McNulty said the cost of the land was considerably lower than what the city has paid recently to acquire land for parks in residential neighbourhoods. The city came up with the offer of $59-million, and the Musqueam and Crown corporation accepted their first offer, he added. "This is a fair deal. We're happy and they're happy the agreement was made," he said.

Jim Wright, spokesman for the Garden City Lands Coalition Society and a strong advocate for the buyout, said the price may reflect in part a widespread feeling that the municipal council should be as fair as possible in its negotiations with the Musqueam, "A lot of people feel very strongly [about]the first nations," he said. "I'm not talking for or against that. I'm just saying that that public way of thinking has an effect on price, just from a business standpoint."

An antagonistic debate at city council over the purchase may have also contributed to boosting the price, he said. A councillor who had supported the high-density development on the land argued that, if the city decided to buy the property, it should pay a price comparable to nearby commercial properties. "The divisions at Richmond council may have made it more difficult to bargain effectively," he said.

Negotiations to buy the property remain confidential. Mr. Wright said he figured out from discussions with a number of people that attitudes to negotiations with natives were among the factors affecting the final price. He was concerned that the price could spark a flurry of speculation in properties in the agricultural land reserves, he added.

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