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Delta throwback: Community stops contentious plan for Southlands

A new community has taken shape at the Southlands which is vastly different than what was proposed there 35 years ago
In the spring of 1989, Tsawwassen residents came together in record numbers to oppose the highly unpopular TDL development proposal for the Southlands.

Delta council 35 years ago halted a highly contentious housing development in Tsawwassen that had created a grassroots movement unlike any seen in the city.

On Aug. 8, 1989, council had heard enough opposition to the Tsawwassen Development Lands (TDL) proposal to build almost 1,900 detached houses on the Southlands, voting to reject the plan despite the applicant’s last-ditch attempt to withdraw it.

Before an overflow crowd at the South Delta Recreation Centre, council members took turns attacking both the development plan and the withdrawal plea.

"I don't think I've sat at the council table more angry than I am tonight," said council member Lois Jackson. "We've all been waiting for this day and I'm not going to let the developers take that away from us."

"I'll see the indignation and raise it some," added fellow Councillor Bruce McDonald, who put forward the motion to deny TDL's withdrawal request.

After scaling back an even bigger development proposal submitted a year earlier, TDL was hoping it had a better chance with a new application in the spring of 1989, but it met with instant, overwhelming opposition.

The TDL proposal galvanized the community and resulted in the longest public hearing in Canadian history at the time. During the hearing, the oral portion of which ran for almost two months, more than 400 people voiced their opposition as the proceedings in South Delta quickly gained national attention.

After the oral portion was adjourned, almost 4,000 people sent written submissions before the hearing was finally halted.

The grassroots movement also included a community-run plebiscite that attracted more than 6,500 Tsawwassen voters, over 90 per cent of whom voted against the proposal.

One night during the public hearing, council thought it might be able to wrap things up by extending that night’s session, but when opposing forces got wind of it, people started returning to council chambers with jeans pulled over their pajamas and slippers on.

In an interview a decade later, Michael Geller, who was brought in to devise the plan and marshal it through the approval process, called the hearing a watershed in Canadian planning.

“To their credit, the Tsawwassen community waged the most articulate and organized opposition on private property in Canada,” he said.

Doug Husband, who was mayor during that time, in an interview a few years ago said it was a challenge trying to cover all the legal bases and navigate a process that appeared destined to have just one result.

Formerly called the Spetifore lands when farmer George Spetifore owned it, the property was removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1981 amid much controversy. The request was put forward at that time by Delta council and the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Husband, who passed away in 2020, in the interview said it was a political move by the city, which was supportive of development, and GVRD in order to have the Spetifore family give back a couple of hundred acres for a park, but it sowed the seeds of public outrage.

“Everyone started to realize a significant protest could have a meaningful result for people,” said Husband.

The Social Credit government at the time issued the cabinet decision overruling the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). Out of more than 8,200 acres of land in B.C. pulled out of the ALR during that period, the commission opposed only the removal of the Spetifore property.

After the TDL proposal failed, the Southlands continued to be a hot topic. On the political front, it resulted in Husband’s defeat and the newly formed Independent Delta Electors' Association (IDEA), with Beth Johnson at the helm, taking control of Delta council in 1990.

The Tsawwassen Homeowners Association formed during the TDL heyday, having 1,700 members at one point and playing an influential role on council for a number of years.

In the early 1990s, the NDP government declined the new council's request to put the Southlands back in the ALR.

By then, Century Holdings had bought the mortgage on the Southlands from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and foreclosed. Then company president George Hodgins floated a 1,000-home proposal that included a golf course that would have been given to the municipality, but that concept was never formally submitted.

The company eventually sold 220 acres east of Boundary Bay Road for more than $7 million in 1995 for expansion of the regional park, while keeping well over 500 acres for an unknown future.

The relationship between Hodgins and council wasn’t exactly a rosy one during that time as the municipality, after a new Tsawwassen Area Plan was approved, downzoned a strip of the Southlands fronting 56 Street from duplex to agricultural.

Hodgins informed Johnson and the rest of council (except Ann Claggett) they could be subject to a $500 million lawsuit. The last straw, he said, was the rejection of an application to subdivide an 80-acre parcel into four 20-acre hobby farms. The lawsuit never went to court, though.

It was another decade before the Southlands made news again when Century Group president Sean Hodgins, George's son, held several open houses in conjunction with Smart Growth B.C. in 2006 to gather input on what's needed to enhance the community. He later unveiled a vision for the Southlands that had an agricultural component combined with housing and open space.

It was the start of a lengthy consultation process that eventually led to the unveiling of conceptual plans at a design charrette in 2008.

Following the anti-sprawl concepts of new urbanism and agricultural urbanism, Hodgins submitted three design concepts to the municipality, all containing a retail component, urban farming and roughly 1,900 housing units of various types.

Although his development plan was vastly different from TDL, it still got a rough ride with many residents skeptical that the land wasn’t viable for farming. By that time, however, many had warmed to the concepts put forward by Hodgins.

A public hearing was held in 2011 on Delta's proposal to apply to have the 215-hectare (536-acre) property placed back in the ALR, but that hearing was halted after the community's deep division was apparent.

Hodgins was then sent back to the drawing board, coming back with another proposal for 950 residential units in various forms on the easternmost 20 per cent of the site.

The company proposed to transfer 80 per cent of the site to Delta. That land would be used for agriculture, natural habitat and greenways. The proposal also included a market square. In addition, Century would provide millions to improve the land's drainage and irrigation for farming.

The subsequent public hearing continued to demonstrate how the Southlands was deeply divisive, but unlike the TDL proposal, the Century plan had many ardent supporters that came out to speak in favour.

Those in favour said the plan would create much-needed housing variety, a growing concern by then, and boost a stagnating community, as well as improve agricultural land that would be in Delta's hands.

In addition to the farming component, including community gardens, the overall project would have unique designs, amenities and variety of housing stock, including cottage homes with shared backyards. Final approval was given in the summer of 2016.

Two years later, Delta received the approval from the ALC to have the agriculturally zoned portion of the Southlands, which has a combined area of 111.5 hectares (276 acres), included in the ALR.

A unique new community has now sprung at the Southlands as construction continues.

In December 2023, council endorsed an application for a new brew pub with a limited beer manufacturing area and an outdoor patio at the Southlands Village.

The Four Winds Restaurant and Brewery is located within a 62,215-square-foot mixed-use development and the property is surrounded by various uses including the Red Barn community hall and Southlands Grange Centre for Farming & Food to the north, as well as commercial businesses and residences to the east.