Farm gets ALC nod for controversial gravel plan

Shelley and Oliver Balme were pleased with news that their controversial plans to restore a portion of their property to viable farmland have taken a step forward with an approval from the Agricultural Land Commission to extract gravel.

"The Agricultural Land Commission has recognized that this proposal is in the best interest of agriculture," said Shelley Balme in an email to the Citizen. "We respect their decision."

The plot in question is a steeply graded section located east of the Trans Canada Highway near Valleyview Centre.

The Balmes propose to extract the gravel, re-grade, import clean fill and make the land into a farmable piece of their property through a nine-phase plan that could take up to 15 years.

Some of the farm’s neighbours have objected to the plan.

Concerns have included dust, noise, traffic, and disruption of agricultural operations, according to the Agricultural Land Commission decision, where it was noted they received "a significant amount of correspondence from the public regarding the use of lands within the ALR with respect to the proposal".

The CVRD board had forwarded the Balmes’ application with a recommendation of refusal.

Their reasons were that there was no certainty that in the long term the project will enhance the agricultural capacity of the land and ensure it is returned to agricultural production; that there may be better options for the land, such as vineyards, that should be explored before such a project is undertaken; and that the community expressed concerns that the project would have "lasting detrimental impacts to their health and safety, and the quiet enjoyment of their operations".

The ALC’s approval is just the first in a lengthy process to determine if the gravel extraction will go ahead, said Cobble Hill Area Director Gerry Giles.

The Balmes must now get a permit from the Ministry of Mines, which will require them to provide environmental impact information.

They must also obtain an industrial access permit from the Ministry of Transportation. Then, if the Balmes wish to process the gravel on their land they would have to apply to the CVRD to either rezone the land or issue a temporary use permit. Their other option would be to truck the gravel off the property.

"There’s a lot of steps that need to happen," explained Giles.

At a July 2 meeting, Shelley Balme said the farm has been in the family for 52 years and by rehabilitating the piece of land cut off from the rest of the farm when the powers that be built a highway through it, they’d be able to farm it for many years to come.

"The project is a land reclamation, not an open-pit mine. We are milking 115 cows and have 240 animals on the farm we have to feed and gravel does not grow grass," she explained.

"With the barrier being put in…it had a severe burden on the farm and our usage of that land was severely cut back. We used to use that land daily and travel to that land daily but now it’s just not cost effective to do that. If this land was reclaimed to produce more crop then we can justify keeping it," she said.

The ALC’s decision noted that the Balmes have said they’ll maintain a buffer so that the project will not be visible from the highway or along the property boundary.

With a file from Sarah Simpson