Lentelus Farms owner and operator Dave Semmelink is photographed on his farm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Lentelus Farms owner and operator Dave Semmelink is photographed on his farm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Island farmer concerned highway expansion poised to swallow up usable farmland

Province looking at improving Highway 19A through Courtenay, and may need ALR land to do it

Two years ago, Dave Semmelink leased his farmland and has been growing his Comox Bay Farm stand, offering a variety of homegrown free-range meat, eggs, bread and produce in the middle of the Comox Valley.

Semmelink, who operates Lentelus Farms, hopes his stand will be on his farm – at 1300 Comox Rd.- for years to come, but the provincial government may have other plans.

Earlier this year, he was made aware of proposed a expansion to Highway 19A, which would involve expropriation of some of his land and his neighbour’s. Both pieces are within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a provincial zone in which agriculture is recognized as the priority use. Farming is encouraged and non-agricultural uses are restricted. The ALR protects approximately 4.6 million hectares of agriculturally suitable land across B.C.

Highway 19A runs parallel to Semmelink’s leased property, known as Farquharson Farms in Courtenay. The Farquharsons owned 192 acres of land in the middle of the city but sold the property to Ducks Unlimited Canada in 1998. Semmelink acquired use of a part of the property as part of a 20-year-lease two years ago from Ducks Unlimited and was planning to renew when it expires.

The proposed expropriation caught him by surprise.

“I just found out; (the province) doesn’t seem to have consulted with Ducks Unlimited. (The project) is supposed to be in the best interest of the people, which I don’t think this is.”

He added that he would like the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to complete a thorough stakeholder engagement process that includes those that would be potentially impacted by the proposed expropriation to try and find a path forward that will benefit all parties involved.

“They will literally be destroying my business,” he added. “It’s a small business, gone. It makes me really nervous that they’re pushing this through so quickly. I’ve gotten such positive feedback (to the farmstand), especially through the pandemic, it’s been amazing. We’ve been able to keep the business viable, especially because we haven’t been able to sell as much to restaurants, and it also shows the importance of local food security.”

In a letter to Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard, Semmelink notes that permanently removing the lands from the ALR with no meaningful consultation with almost any of the affected stakeholders appears to be a direct contradiction of the B.C. government’s Grow BC, Feed BC, Buy BC objectives.

RELATED: Farmer bringing back classic farm stand in Courtenay

He adds not only would there be a large expense involved for his business if he was forced to close down and relocate during construction, but the impacts are also broader than just his livelihood and local food security.

“The farm stand allows us the opportunity to host and teach (students in) North Island College’s (Sustainable Farming Training Program). Without the opportunity to sell our produce directly to local customers we might not be able to host this learning opportunity for the 12 students enrolled in the program. These students are the backbone of our local food security; they have gone on to manage local dairy farms, start their own farm business and work as skilled farm labourers in our local agricultural community.”

Semmelink says the proposal is for two additional lanes to be added to the highway, along with a walkway path and a bike lane.

A representative from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure confirms the ministry is currently undertaking planning work related to Highway 19A to make the road safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, while also addressing flooding issues.

“Ministry staff are in the very early design and planning phase. The ministry has been working with local stakeholders and will continue to keep people well informed as things progress. Conversations about any land required will take place at a later date after the design and planning phase is complete,” notes the representative in an email.

Leonard echos what MOTI notes and adds they will be working with stakeholders through the process, however, she understands Semmelink’s reaction to the project.

“Expropriation is a rarely used option and ALR land is there for a reason; this will be addressed during the planning stages and there will be stakeholder engagement and there will be an opportunity for Dave to have further discussions.”

She said while Highway 19A is a provincial road, it does cut through the City of Courtenay and expects there to be engagement with the city as well.

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