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Residents against the 'Southlands' development listen to a public hearing in Delta, B.C., October 28, 2013.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Some land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve more than 30 years ago could be put back in if Metro Vancouver approves the Southlands development, which would turn a swath of boggy farmland into a development made up of homes, parks and agricultural operations.

On Monday, Delta council backed a motion from Mayor Lois Jackson for city staff to meet with Agricultural Land Commission representatives to discuss which portions of land involved in the proposal would be appropriate for including in the ALR.

"It's something we have talked about for quite a period of time – the question was where it should be introduced," Ms. Jackson said at the Monday council meeting, a video of which is posted online. "We've had a [legal] opinion on this and it was proposed that we do this here tonight."

The ALC oversees B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve, which was set up in the 1970s to protect farmland and includes 4.7 million hectares, or about five per cent of the provincial land mass. The reserve is under pressure from non-agricultural use and development in many parts of the province.

The Southlands proposal involves 217 hectares, most of which was in the ALR until its removal through a government order in 1981. Since then, there have been repeated proposals to develop the site, with controversy dogging each one. The current owner, Century Group, acquired it in 1990 and submitted the Southlands proposal in 2011.

Delta approved Century's plan in November after a public hearing. Under the proposal, Century would transfer about 80 per cent of the site to Delta and put up $9-million to improve drainage and irrigation on it. Delta would then enter talks with the ALC about which portion to return to the land reserve.

The development would be a mixed-used community with 950 residential units – including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments – and commercial space.

Several conditions must be met before any land would be returned to the ALR, the biggest being approval from Metro Vancouver of the development.

The Southlands site is designated agricultural in Metro Vancouver's regional growth strategy, which was adopted in 2011. For the project to go ahead, parts of the site would have to be reclassified as "general urban" or "conservation and recreation."

That process involves several stages and is expected to take several months.

In a letter to Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore, Ms. Jackson included council comments supporting the project.

"The application presents an unbelievable deal for agriculture in Delta," says the letter, a draft of which was discussed at the council meeting. "The subject property has become fallow and overgrown with blackberries, thistles and trees. … The $9-million contribution from the developer would improve the ditching, drainage and the farmland."

Critics have raised concerns about the loss of farmland as well as increased traffic and potential flood and earthquake risks for homeowners on the site.

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