Farmers, food activists prepare for urban agriculture showdown
Horse Hill is last large undeveloped land segment on Edmonton's north side
Farmers and food activists in Edmonton's northeast are readying for a final round in their battle to preserve large-scale urban agriculture, a vital part of keeping a locally grown supply of fresh food for the city.
Planning started for the Horse Hill area this spring, but those who want to keep food production in the city feel the first moves have already gone against them.
Despite lobbying efforts, the developer -not the city -is leading the planning process.
Walton Development, an international company that bought up most of the land in the area, hired Stantec Consulting to start developing an area structure plan this spring.
For potato farmer Gord Visser, that's a big disappointment.
"We feel really threatened," he said. "We feel a real conflict of interest is at work. In the City of Calgary, their planning department develops their own area structure plans."
Horse Hill, an area of rolling canola fields and tree-lined highways, is the last large segment of land on Edmonton's north side without new neighbourhoods already on the drawing board.
But few assume it will stay that way long. Once considered a backwater in the countryside, it's now next door to a 5,000 hectare industrial zone. It's a 15-minute drive from upgrader alley, and just off the last leg of the Anthony Henday, now expected to be complete by fall 2016.
It's also home to a series of one-off developments-a trailer park kittycorner to a subdivision of multimillion-dollar acreages in Quarry Ridge, the Alberta Hospital, Henwood Treatment Centre, greenhouses and a children's ranch. Just outside the boundary, a Sikh temple was built just before the land around it was rezoned industrial.
Residents fought a 90,000-head feedlot and the new remand centre originally considered for the area.
"We're used to coming together and fighting things," said Teresa Ball, a Quarry Ridge Estates resident who followed the development of this article online.
"We just want something planned. Tell us what's going to happen. We're tired of fighting these wars all the time."
Development would have bene-fits, said Lisa Jimmo, president of the Horse Hill community league. "Everybody wants services. Where I live we don't have water and sewer. Even the market gardens would like city water.
"The one thing we all agree on is that we want an area structure plan."
What makes farmers and food activists so committed to keeping agriculture in the area is the quality of the top soil and a microclimate near the river that gives farmers a long seaon, an average of 143 frost-free days. City studies have found net profit per acre is $270 in that zone, compared to $36 in Strathcona County and $16 in Parkland County.
The grassroots lobby group Greater Edmonton Alliance argues the city needs that ability to grow fresh produce locally, and farmers such as Visser argue building houses and destroying a farming community dedicated to using that land would be a waste. But developing the area with agriculture will require a different plan than what city council has been approving for other suburbs.
Coming up for Living on the Edge: Developers face new density targets for the suburbs. They are lobbying to shrink minimum lot widths to 7.5 metres, and experimenting with row houses and more condos. Is Edmonton dense enough? Will we break our love affair with the single-family home? Write from your experience to livingedge@edmontonjournal. com, scan the code or follow the series online at www.edmonton journal.com/livingedge.
Coun. Ed Gibbons has often said that can be achieved with an ecofriendly, walkable landscape with medium-density housing mixed with small-market gardens, a vision inspired by a trip to The Netherlands.
But Visser argues the only way to keep real farming in the area is to reserve a large section of connected fields -preferably several thousand acres near the North Saskatchewan River.
"If it's fractured like it is now, it's going to be very difficult to farm," he said. "To get out of a field, for instance -tractors and traffic don't work well. Dirt would be coming off of the fields, and residents don't like to see spraying, especially aerial spraying close to their houses."
Collectively, members of the Northeast Edmonton Agriculture Producers, farmers who haven't sold to the developer yet and want to continue farming, own about 1,000 acres of land scattered throughout Horse Hill. Visser says they want to work with the city to arrange land swaps or development credits so Edmonton could keep a contiguous swath of land dedicated for agriculture.
"The best land is along the North Saskatchewan River. We'd be able to build a corridor along there and preserve urban agriculture, just like we've saved some of our parks," he said. "We'd like to work with the City of Edmonton in a non-biased way rather than having that led by Stantec, who is hired by the developers. The developers are interested in developing as much of that land into residential as possible. That's the business they're in."
But river valley land is expensive. Acreages backing onto the river for the third phase of Quarry Ridge Estates are going for $660,000 a lot, without a house on the property.
Janet Riopel, Edmonton-based director of community development for Walton, said nothing has been ruled out and the planning process is just beginning. Representatives from all of the stakeholder groups are being invited to a design meet-ing in September and will continue to be involved through an advisory council.
"We'll make it really unique, really innovative," she said on Friday.
City planners expect an area structure plan to come before city council within two years.
During the fall municipal election, Greater Edmonton Alliance asked all candidates for council if they would support a city-led planning process for Horse Hill as an exception to the normal development-led process.
At the time, seven out of the 12 elected councillors said yes.
The group sent a letter reminding councillors of that fact on Thursday.
"First and foremost, we want our city to show some leadership," said Laura Jeffreys, lead organizer for the group.
"Approval of an area structure plan is absolutely the bottom line," she said. The fight to preserve the topsoil will be over "if an area structure plan comes forward to council and seven of them say, this looks good to me and it does not preserve an agricultural corridor."
Canadian farmers are aging, and few young people are willing to take over family farms, she said. "Here's a place that's really attractive to young farmers. We would hate to lose both the land and the community that care for it."