The farmer from Local Harvest Market wanted to talk about the importance eating local food with greater consciousness at city hall.
City council members offered support last week, but also emphasized the urgent need to bring the business into compliance with bylaws, and code regulations.
The revamped barn structure on the Lickman Road property isn’t up to code, or considered suitable for high occupancy use.
Local Harvest Market owner Dan Oostenbrink was given just under three months to work with city staff on outstanding issues around the retail aspects of the farm operation.
A public hearing was held last Tuesday night to rezone a portion of the land on Lickman Road from an AL (Agriculture Lowland) Zone to an AC (Agriculture Commercial) Zone, in order to allow the continued operation of the two-year-old business inside the main building on Lickman Road. The rezoning was later approved in principle, but held at third reading.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz called Oostenbrink “a pioneer” and said she appreciated he was bringing attention to the growing local food movement.
“But I am not happy with some of how this is being done,” she said.
Oostenbrink admitted to council after being pressed on the issue, that he was aware he’d been operating without certain permits in violation of bylaws. He noted he’s been made to feel what they were doing was “illegal” at the site, having started as a roadside veggie operation.
Changes at Local Harvest in the past three years ranged from greenhouse construction, to herb and vegetable production in the fields, as well as the addition of a café with hot food, and a farm market inside a renovated barn structure, with added partners.
Renovations were made to the main building “without benefit of approval and issuance of appropriate (city) Building Permits and formalization of the Agricultural Land Commission’s approval through zoning,” according to the staff report in the Jan. 21 council meeting agenda.
Regarding when the applicant said he was made to feel what they were doing was “illegal,” Mayor Gaetz said: “And it simply is.
“That’s why I would like to encourage you to work with staff to address this. The rest of the community is watching.”
Oostenbrink was the only presenter at the public hearing.
He explained the goal of Local Harvest was to “reconnect people with farm grown food” through the experience of eating what they have grown right there on-site.
“It’s an experience that adds incredible meaning and value to local farm grown food.”
It’s about sustainability, too. He said the costs of bringing everything up to code would be very cost prohibitive for the nascent venture.
“We have discovered that our off-season cash flow depends heavily on offering our customers value-added food. Without a bistro and other value-added products, we’d be forced to layoff most of our staff through the winter and close our doors.”
The problem is the rules restrict the retail space to just a 100 square metre area.
“That’s basically 10 by 10,” said Oostenbrink, adding that small space, where 50 per cent must come from their farm, “can in no way represent” what they produce on the 30 acres, and sell from their farm and other farms.
He called the bylaws and code requirements limiting the retail space so severely, “ludicrous” and asked for those in power to offer support and flexibility as he attempts to move from a temporary structure into a more permanent one.
“I believe we should be eating with a greater consciousness of where our food comes from,” he said. “We should be asking, how did this food get to my plate? Who picked it?”
He later asked if it were possible to sell out of a greenhouse, looking for creative ways around the conundrum, and said he would do his “utmost” to fix the problem with the inadequate building.
“I hope we can move forward in a way that promotes local food.”
Oostenbrink wrote about the issue on his Facebook page, and read out sections of it at the meeting:
“The second reason we’ve been forced to rezone is because it is illegal to sell hot or cold food items for consumption on agriculture land. Yes, you may process food on farm land. You’re allowed to can, ferment, smoke or dry farm grown food and you’re allowed to sell it for off-site consumption. But the instant somebody on our property bites into an omelet that’s made using eggs from our pasture run chickens, homegrown tomatoes, peppers, onions with cheese from our neighbours farm we’re committing an offence.
“Selling food for on-site consumption is considered a ‘non-farm’ activity and forces us to apply for rezoning. Non-farm use, folks? What’s so non-farmish about eating food on the farm where it was grown or raised?
After the hearing Coun. Jason Lum said he saw “tremendous” value in the efforts by Local Harvest and the challenges they faced.
Coun. Sue Attrill said she didn’t oppose the rezoning but took issue the business operating with the necessary permits.
Coun. Ken Popove asked why they didn’t go through the proper permit process before opening, the reply was that they were told it would take $250,000 to bring it up to code.
Coun. Chris Kloot said council wished them the best but wanted to make sure they were not “setting precedent.”
There’s very little leeway provided in BC Building code, said staff, for the flexibility the applicant was asking for.
Coun. Sam Waddington said he wished them well, but would feel more comfortable in his support if they were brought into compliance.
The rezoning was given three readings by council Tuesday and it will be held there, pending efforts by staff and the applicant to work together to resolve the outstanding issues.
Only after the rezoning gets final approval will a building permit be issued.
“I will do my utmost to make this work in the best interests of Chilliwack and ourselves,” concluded Oostenbrink.
Staff said they would work with the applicant until the building was in compliance, but suggested there could be liability issues if the city failed to enforce the codes, and if the building fell down, they’d “have a problem.”