Finding a place to live is essential but there is also a growing shortage of places to be when people in Chilliwack die.
Four years ago Vedder View Gardens Cemetery (VVGC) owner Greg Peterson warned that if his application to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) for non-farm use of an adjacent property was rejected, in four years Chilliwack could face a shortage of property for casket burials.
That time is up and the ALC has rejected his multiple applications for non-farm use on a portion of a property in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) to expand the Watson Road cemetery.
Peterson’s application in 2014 and again in 2017 had the support of the City of Chilliwack’s Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC) and were forwarded to the ALC “with support.” He backed up his application with two agrologist reports that found the land to be far from “prime agricultural land” as the ALC calls it.
“I favour protecting good farm land but what I do not support is protecting land merely because it was randomly placed in the then new ALR in the early 1980s,” Peterson said.
“The land which I seek to expand VVGC is truly not farmable and can be put to a more beneficial use in serving literally thousands of families compared to proving housing for one family.”
Peterson initially created an application for non-farm use for a large portion of a 14.6-acre property the cemetery owns next door that runs all the way from Watson Road to South Sumas Road. After having an initial agrologist report done, he altered his application to rezone just 5.6 acres and undergo an enhancement project for the remaining nine acres.
In late 2014, the city’s AAC approved the application, city council forwarded it “with support” but on Nov. 16, 2015 he was notified the ALC denied his request.
He appealed, and that was denied. So in November 2016, Peterson put forth a revised application requesting only a 2.6-acre portion of the property along Watson Road. Again, the application was supported by the AAC and city council, and this one came with a second agrologist report conducted by Madrone Environmental Services.
“The study area clearly cannot be called ‘prime agricultural land,’” the report read in part. “Irrigation is critical to agriculture on these soils. Even deep-rooted fruit trees will be challenged due to the lack of water storage in the coarse-textured subsoils.”
But the ALC again rejected his application. In an email to the ALC he asked if they had tested the soil to confirm the 1983 mapping that called it “predominantly prime agricultural capability.
The response? “No, a soil condition test was not done.”
Utterly frustrated, Peterson just can’t understand the ALC’s responses to what he says is a pressing need in the community on a piece of land unsuitable for farming. The current use is mostly a house with a gravel driveway and parking lot. Adjacent to the cemetery to the north is former agricultural rezoned for industrial, the current Legacy Pacific site.
He also points to several other non-farm requests in the ALR approved by the ALC such as an off-leash dog park, a pet cemetery, and a Buddhist prayer facility.
“With our on-going attempts to grow and expand our local population, what do we do when they die?”
Peterson said no new cemetery property has been made available since 1992 when Vedder View Gardens opened. The much larger Chilliwack Cemeteries on Little Mountain does have approximately 1,000 undeveloped burial spaces, but Peterson said those will be more expensive to the general public because what is left is mostly on steep hillsides.
There are some cemeteries on local First Nations reserve land used by those communities. There are also ones owned by Carman United, St. Mary’s Catholic and Greendale Mennonite (next to VVGC), which are open to members of those respective churches.
Peterson understands that other types of farming can be done on ALR land with poor soils, greenhouses or hops, for example. But due to the proximity to residential housing there are limits and “it has never been farmed and as my reports clearly indicate, never will be farmed.”
Peterson reiterated that folks who prefer cremation burial or placement in above-ground niche walls, he has plenty of space, but the space for casket burial for the general public is shrinking fast. His only other alternative to expanding to the adjacent property is moving the cemetery’s front fence line towards Watson Road eliminating much of the parking but accessing more land.
He’s gone on a bit of a letter writing campaign to the mayor, Coun. Chris Kloot, Premier John Horgan and Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham.
He also wrote to William Zylmans of the ALC but he’s received no response.
Peterson points to large housing developments under construction in the Webster Landing area and to the west in land near the river south of Keith Wilson Road as examples of how the city’s population is growing, with cemetery space shrinking.
“What do we do when these families have a death? Where do they go?”