George Heyman: CP Rail should press “pause” button before destroying community gardens

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This op-ed was originally published on the Georgia straight website on July 29th, 2014

Last weekend, residents of the Cypress, Pine, and Maple community gardens hosted Vancouver residents and passersby to display the results of their 25-year area beautification project. They also collected signatures for a petition to save their gardens in the Arbutus corridor. As their website says, “Community gardens do more than provide healthful locally grown food. They promote the development of community….”

When I visited on Saturday, both the gardens and adjacent walking path saw a steady stream of people enjoying the greenery, apple trees, a wide range of flowering plants—and welcome shade. But both the gardens and the community are threatened by a July 31 deadline. That’s when CP Rail says it will bar access and begin to clear a right-of-way that will cut right through the centre of the three blocks of garden plots.

In a response letter to me, CP’s director of government affairs calls the gardeners “trespassers” while acknowledging “this is a harsh description of those who have put such care into beautifying our land.” It also seems a harsh description of neighbourly citizens who collectively, for over two decades, have tended overgrown land, nurtured plants for food and beauty, and voluntarily removed junk and trash abandoned by the tracks since CP stopped running trains in 2001.

For much of this time, the gardeners paid a modest fee to the city for use of the land and water. In 1999, Cypress garden won a joint city and park board award for the most beautiful community garden, helping Vancouver win the national “Communities in Bloom” contest.

CP Rail’s ownership of the Arbutus Corridor right-of-way dates back to 1886, when the province gave a land grant for CP to construct a rail line from False Creek to the Fraser River. CP has profited considerably over the years. The community gardens and rail traffic coexisted until 2001, when CP stopped running trains on the 11-kilometre stretch of track. CP hoped to develop the land, but Vancouver has zoned the land as a public transportation and greenway thoroughfare. When CP challenged the bylaw, the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006 upheld the city’s right to control use of the corridor without compensation, even if it interfered with CP’s plans to change use.

The city has since offered to buy the land from CP for fair market value. At the heart of this standoff is the question of how much money that means. CP Rail, stymied in its plan to make huge land development profits, wants more money. Vancouver has offered fair market value based on an independent appraisal.

he community is caught in the middle, and it looks to many observers like residents and their gardens are pawns in a high-stakes impasse over the purchase price. Meanwhile a beautiful public thoroughfare, appreciated daily by hundreds of residents and tourists, is at imminent risk.

CP Rail has benefited hugely for over a century from this and other land parcels granted to it by governments acting on behalf of Canadians. CP could demonstrate good community citizenship by pressing the “pause” button on its plans—plans that will alter and destroy a community amenity built and maintained by residents volunteering their time for over 25 years.

Rather than charging past the point of no return, it is not too late for CP to place its plans on hold while entering into negotiation and mediation with the city for a resolution that will secure the Arbutus Corridor’s future—and allow the gardeners a reprieve while they bring in this year’s harvest.