The Vancouver region's industrial land needs to be protected the same way its farmland has over the past 40 years – with an industrial land reserve to prevent it from being rezoned for anything else, says the CEO of Port Metro Vancouver.
With the port booming and intense demand for industrial space about to hit the region, CEO Robin Silvester has issued a call for a reserve that will be out of the reach of "financially constrained municipal governments."
That would be similar to B.C.'s groundbreaking Agricultural Land Reserve, created by the province's first NDP government in 1973, which prevents municipalities from rezoning farmland to anything else without going through a rigorous review process.
Mr. Silvester, who has been on an aggressive campaign to promote the port's importance to the regional economy since he arrived here in 2009, said Vancouver recently lost a major port-related development to Calgary because the company couldn't find land locally.
He wouldn't specify which company, but Calgary media revealed in late November that Target is going to build a 1.3-million-square-foot distribution centre there.
"An industrial land reserve, like the Agricultural Land Reserve, would set out clear rules for everyone to follow. And clear rules are the foundation of economic certainty," said Mr. Silvester, who oversees the operation of 28 terminals and facilities in Burrard Inlet, on the Fraser River, and in Delta.
And he warned that, unless there's a solution developed to protect industrial land, the port will be under extreme pressure to use agricultural land for industrial uses – something that no one wants.
Ports typically create a huge demand for storage and distribution centres around them, because the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks. So goods coming in need to be taken out, re-sorted and put into new containers before they are transported from the port.
His call for a reserve, made Friday at his annual address to the Vancouver Board of Trade, was welcomed enthusiastically by people in shipping and commercial brokerage, and somewhat more cautiously by municipal politicians.
"It is a tremendous idea," said Bob Laurie, a consultant who specializes in commercial land. "The lower end of the market needs protecting."
Industrial land is often eyed by developers as prime ground for redevelopment into commercial or residential developments, because it is typically the cheapest land in any region after agricultural, making it likely to generate the biggest profits.
Mr. Silvester noted that various municipalities have rezoned 3,000 hectares worth of industrial land to other uses in the past 30 years.
Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie said everyone in the region recognizes the importance of industrial land, but Metro Vancouver is trying to protect it through a new land-use plan called the Regional Growth Strategy.
That plan requires municipalities, for the first time in the region's history, to get approval from the Metro Vancouver board before rezoning any industrial land.
"It protects the region as a whole from an individual council being pressured by a developer or financial needs."
Mr. Louie said he'd like to see whether that new initiative is successful first, before launching into a complex concept like an industrial-land reserve, which would have to be initiated and regulated by the province.
Commercial brokerage firm Avison Young noted in a newsletter earlier this year that the Vancouver region saw $360-million in industrial investment in 2011, the most the region has ever had.
That's just the beginning of a "tsunami" of port-related development to come, it said.
"[The] impending storm surge will fundamentally alter the industrial landscape when the 'wave' of next-generation distribution centres and transshipment facilities makes landfall in the near term."
Representatives from the B.C. Liberal Party and the NDP did not respond to a request for comments about the idea of an industrial-land reserve.
Mr. Silvester said Port Metro is going to start a community dialogue about the idea in the new year.