Urban Agriculture Not Welcomed in Lantzville
On Friday, June 10th, a process server arrived at our door with a letter. It stated that our Lantzville Council was proceeding with legal action—taking us to court to shut down our “urban” farm which is located in a semi-rural area, on a dead end road.
This, after at least nine months of “in camera” meetings by council, is how they are spending our tax dollars.
Last year, my spouse, Dirk Becker, and I, responded to a “cease all agricultural activity” letter by sharing information and photographs with council as to how we are transforming our property from essentially a gravel pit (created by the previous owner who strip-mined, removing soil, sand and gravel, lowering the level of the property three to five feet) to a lush oasis of life (see article: www.synergymag.ca/a-lantzville-couple’s-fight-for-the-right-to-grow-food). We have received certification from the Canadian Wildlife Federation for creating “Backyard Habitat” for wildlife. We also shared with council information about what we do, how we do it, along with links and videos on “urban farming”, the “urban farming movement” and the “local food movement”.
For the benefit of readers, this is a fast-growing movement all over the world. All “urban farming” is done in “residentially zoned” areas. Hence the term: “urban” farming. Municipalities across North America are responding to this movement by changing bylaws to support local food—to allow the growing of food as a home based business. To feed one person for a whole year, it takes about two acres of land. On Vancouver Island, we only grow 5% of the food we eat and there are only two days of fresh food supply in the grocery stores. So it behooves us to support and encourage the growing of local food.
As with most societal change, “the people” lead… and then it takes time for bureaucrats to follow and change the laws. How else would women have won the right in 1929 to be declared as “persons” (rather than as property) and have the right to vote? And how else would Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement have changed the laws that segregated “blacks” from “whites”? The people took action first.
So for those who get stuck and insist that “the law’s the law”: remember, laws are made and changed every day in Canada. Unfortunately nowadays, more often than not, it is large companies who lobby the government to change laws that benefit said companies. It is time for the people to insist on laws that are good for the people and our planet.
In the media, Mayor Colin Haime and the Lantzville Administrator, Twyla Graff, have stated that they “have no choice but to pursue litigation”. This is untrue. We and others have spoken to council members in numerous communities on Vancouver Island, as well as lawyers specializing in property law, all of whom concur, “Council members have an obligation to respond to complaints; but they are not obligated to actually enforce bylaws.”
A short tour in places like Lantzville or Nanaimo will easily reveal hundreds of bylaw infractions, many of which are worthy of complaints and prosecution. With law enforcement, such as being pulled over by a police officer, officials and organizations have a high degree of discretion available to them. Just think if a given jurisdiction came down on all “illegal” structures, basement suites, and speeders. Our courts would be full. As our world is changing rapidly, it seems that we all have a responsibility to move from talking about “sustainability” to encouraging it, supporting it and moving in that direction in every manner possible.
Only one council member, Rod Negrave has come by to see what we do here. We got nowhere in email exchanges with our Mayor. On November 17th, 2010, I closed an email cc’d to Lantzville Council and RDN directors with: “All Councillors and RDN Directors are welcome to call, email or make an appointment to visit in order to research and learn more about this issue and we will continue to share information and co-operate with the goal of creating solutions that are for the betterment of all of us.”
We naively thought at the time that this would be an open, collaborative process. The rest of council did not take us up on our offer. To this day, Councillor Negrave is still the only one who has made the effort to see for himself what we do. However, we continued to see the mayor plus several councillors visit our angry neighbour. Is it just me, or does this seem lacking in fairness and objectivity?
When Mayor Haime was asked by a resident, through his personal blog, why he hadn’t visited our place, part of his reply was “I have not visited Compassion Farm because what he is doing is not hard to understand. A personal visit is not needed.” And that he finds “it interesting that those that support Compassion Farm do not question Rod Negrave or Joe Bratkowski why they have not visited the neighbour who is plagued with living beside Compassion Farm. The smell is offensive, there is concern about run off into their well from the fresh (uncomposted) manure spread amongst the plants, the flys (sic) on their house are disturbing plus the number of local landscapers using it as a dump site to save themselves some money are streaming down the road on a regular basis.”
Does this sound like a collaborative, unbiased public servant? People driving slowly by our home on a daily basis (which is on a dead end road) to see what all the commotion is about, have stopped for a tour and expressed genuine surprise that the place is tidy and doesn’t “stink of manure”.
The mission and values of council, as listed on the District of Lantzville website, are:
“Act in a professional manner at all times, having respect for each other, the roles of council and staff, the decision making process, opinions of all of our constituents, and carry out adequate research and thoughtfully consider the issues before us, while serving and representing all of our community.”
The majority of this council has disregarded the hundreds of letters that have been written to them (one councillor implied at a council meeting that they disregarded letters they considered “unfriendly”). They have also disregarded the community members who attended two open houses/workshops to discuss urban agriculture. At the following council meeting, rather than directing staff to use the facilitator’s report to adjust the draft bylaw, Council went through the bylaw, step-by-step, giving their own opinions as to what changes to make. While Councillors Bratowski and Negrave insisted that Council’s job was to direct staff, not to micro-manage, Councillor Denise Haime stated that in order to direct staff they needed to go through the bylaw right then and there (it was the longest council meeting I’ve ever attended).
In addition, Council disregarded the over 200 people who attended at public hearing. All but two of the speakers spoke against linking Temporary Use Permits (T.U.P.) to agriculture. Shortly thereafter, we received a registered letter from the District of Lantzville inviting us to apply for a T.U.P.
We turned down the invitation for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was against the wishes of the people and Council decided to disregard the people. Secondly, we received legal advice not to apply for a T.U.P. Other reasons include that we have no idea what the terms and conditions would be, we would have to pay $1,150.00 (our income is $20,000 per year), and a T.U.P. can be revoked at any time without notice.
Further to this, rather than talking with us, visiting our property, or sharing with us what the actual problem is, the majority of council has decided to take the heavy-handed approach to a bylaw infraction—a bylaw that is in the midst of being changed (supposedly to support growing food as a homebased business). Instead, they commence legal action with taxpayer money.
Another resident asked the Mayor on his blog: “If Bylaw 60 is ‘under review’ with a committee to be considering all the feedback re: the amendments, why would a legal letter be issued to cease activity with regards to an ‘urban garden’?”
Haime’s response was, “When the property that is not in compliance refuses to attempt to come into compliance or refuses to participate in discussions to find a compromise solution that would allow users to co-exist and mitigate/eliminate real or potential off-site effects the District needs to move forward.” (Apparently with “litigation”).
Refuses to participate in discussions? This is the first we’ve heard of it. We have met with both the Bylaw Enforcement Officer, Brian Brack, and the Lantzville Administrator, Twyla Graff. When a representative from the Regional District of Nanaimo asked us if we were open to mediation (to do with our angry neighbour), we said, “Absolutely.” Dirk and I attended council meetings, the public hearing at which we both spoke at the microphone, additionally we attended both ‘urban agriculture’ open houses/workshops and gave verbal and submitted written input at both sessions.
From day one we have offered to collaborate and naively thought that is what the process would include; however, our council has continued “discussions” in-camera (meaning, in secret).
Recently our Mayor has had a “guest comment” published in a Nanaimo newspaper where he states, “I believe we have tried to resolve this issue in a fair manner by inviting the property owner to present his ideas to council (ignored), to apply for a temporary use permit (refused), to apply for rezoning (refused), even to apply to the Agricultural Land Reserve for farm status but to no avail.” I will address each point:
- Present ideas to council: Back in November we had sent council detailed information, links and videos about urban farming, the local food movement, Vancouver Island’s dependence on importing 95% of its food as well as noting the importance of considering “emergency preparedness”. Mayor Haime did not respond to this information; however, he reacted to an email we got hold of that we had sent to “friends and neighbours”. He didn’t show any signs of “hearing” our points, it was a one-way lecture until we gave up and told him we wanted no further contact with him as we were happy to answer his questions and he would not answer ours–demonstrating his single minded approach, his lack of interest in what we had to say, making it clear that his mind was already made up and that he had no real interest in dialogue. We also met with Twyla Graff, the Lantzville Administrator and Brian Brack, the RDN Bylaw Enforcement Officer. In that meeting Twyla asked that we and others (who were planning to speak in December) not take up more council meeting time by presenting, stressing that “Council has got the message.”
- Apply for a temporary use permit: we listed the reasons for declining earlier in this article.
- Rezoning: see farm status below.
- Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR): see farm status below.
- Farm Status: Other than the two bylaw enforcement letters (first the “unsightly premises” and then the “cease all agriculture activity”), a letter letting us know of the T.U.P. process, then the registered letter ‘inviting’ us to ‘apply’ for a T.U.P., and recently the letter/document (posted below) we received from the Victoria law firm saying Lantzville is now taking legal action against us, the District of Lantzville has NEVER communicated with us with regard to having us apply for rezoning, apply to the ALR, or attain Farm Status. The mayor’s statements are simply not true. (As an aside, we have always paid full property taxes whereas attaining Farm Status would lower our taxes considerably).
As of press time, if we have not stopped growing vegetables and selling them at the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market, we will be taken to court by our District of Lantzville.
Some have asked, “Is it worth it?” Hmm, shall we ask people of colour? Shall we ask women if they prefer being persons in their own right? Each significant change in history began with the people taking action.
Among other things, Nicole is a farmer, feminist, artist, founding member of the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market, and volunteers her time to publish this magazine. Click to read her previous articles on this subject:
If you would like to donate to the Compassion Farm Defense Fund, click here.