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land use

Customers shop for vegetables in the Fiore Farms booth at the Vancouver Winter Farmer's Market at Nat Bailey Stadium on Jan. 27, 2013. A farmer on Vancouver Island has chosen to shut down his 2.5-acre property after a long dispute with the municipality over zoning issues.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

A Vancouver Island couple is selling their organic vegetable farm near Nanaimo, saying they are worn out from a lengthy zoning battle with municipal authorities.

Dirk Becker, who grows about 16,000 pounds of vegetables at Compassion Farm in Lantzville each year, said Monday that he and his partner Nicole Shaw made the decision following a dispute that has seen tempers flare on both sides of a debate over commercial farming in an area zoned for residential use.

Some neighbours complained about traffic, water safety concerns and smelly piles of manure. But as Mr. Becker sees it, the controversy revolves around using urban land to grow food – and what he considers Lantzville's refusal to accommodate thatuse even as other municipalities, including Vancouver, are embracing backyard chickens and beehives.

The municipality ignored neighbours who kept horses, chickens or cows but zeroed in on Compassion Farm, Mr. Becker maintains. "Did we feel harassed and persecuted? Absolutely," he said Monday in a telephone interview, citing repeat inspections and threatened legal action.

Lantzville Mayor Jack de Jong, however, was surprised by the couple's plans, saying they had signed an agreement in March that was designed to resolve the long-standing dispute.

In that agreement, posted on its website, Lantzville agrees not to enforce the no-farming bylaw as long as Compassion Farm meets certain conditions, including giving the municipality the right to conduct periodic water tests on both the farm and neighbouring properties.

"The mediation was a success – both parties signed off on the issues and Mr. Becker was allowed to continue his farming operation but with some constraints. And the constraints were not so serious that he could not continue," Mr. de Jong said. "So I was somewhat surprised by Mr. Becker's reaction [to sell], but it's a very personal thing."

The municipality covered $20,000 in mediation costs because the dispute had gone on for so long and had polarized the community, Mr. de Jong said. Typically, parties in a dispute over municipal bylaws would pay for mediation themselves.

The debate over Compassion Farm has featured petitions and heated council meetings, and became an issue in the 2011 municipal election, when Mr. de Jong won office on a platform that included support for small-scale urban agriculture.

Council recently passed a motion to look at regulations that would allow small-scale farming.

Mr. Becker says he and Ms. Shaw have decided to seek Vancouver Island property where their farming operations would be welcomed, or at least accommodated. That, Mr. Becker concedes, likely means looking at areas currently zoned for agricultural use.

Mr. Becker acquired his 2.5-acre property 13 years ago, and Ms. Shaw subsequently joined him. Located in a semi-rural area, Compassion Farm sells nearly all of its output at the Bowen Road Farmers Market in Nanaimo. Since 2010, the couple has argued that the municipality should change its bylaws to accommodate their operation, saying it posed no threat to local water supplies and would improve access to fresh food in a region where much produce is shipped from the mainland.

Three water tests by Vancouver Island Health Authority have not turned up any problems, Mr. Becker said.