A historic five-acre farm in Nanaimo’s University District is in the process of being rezoned to allow for a large residential development, and that has some nearby residents concerned that part of the city’s heritage is being overlooked.
Frank Armishaw purchased the property in 1948 and proudly farmed it to provide for his family, raising cattle and tending large gardens.
Armishaw died in 2009 after more than 60 years on the property, leaving the estate to his three daughters, all of whom grew up working on the farm. The land was sold to Sita Enterprises in 2011.
Nanaimo council passed the first two readings of Sita’s rezoning application in March, hosted a public hearing on the subject April 5, and passed third reading April 16. Final adoption is expected at an upcoming council meeting.
The property, which still has the Armishaw’s barn on it, is currently zoned as single-family residential. Sita is applying to have it zoned as mixed-use so it can add a five-storey building with up to 50 student housing units, a second five-storey building with 32 condo units, 30 townhouse units and 15 single dwelling lots.
The property is listed on the city’s heritage register, although that does not protect it from development, but is not listed on the Agricultural Land Reserve. A city hall report cites the farm as “exceptionally significant as it is the only recognized, intact acreage in one of British Columbia’s earliest planned communities, Harewood Estates.”
Harewood residents Margaret Dyke and Teresa McGown say should be enough to keep the property in its original historic state while encouraging food security education, possibly as a working farm partnership between the city and Vancouver Island University.
“This was a perfect opportunity to address the potential problem of food security, and to reconnect people with their food sources,” said Dyke, who has lived for 20 years adjacent to the Armishaw Farm. “This property started as a farm, and we feel this could have been a beautiful, creative project that was something more than another housing development.”
Instead, said McGown, the development will attract more people and more vehicles, while diminishing land on which to grow food.
“The food issue is one thing. Where will the food come from to feed people if we keep building these massive housing developments? Another thing, and we’ve learned this through this process, is that there is no opportunity for democracy when it comes to looking after the history of Nanaimo.”
At the March 16 council meeting where the rezoning was discussed, neither food security nor city heritage was addressed. Traffic and parking considerations were issues in which council was most interested.
The rezoning application also asks for a variance that would provide a 10-metre riparian setback from the Cat Stream, which flows through the property, instead of the required 15 metres.
Armishaw’s eldest daughter, Bev Whitta, who farms chickens in Nanoose, said she supports the development, and that it will be “an exciting development for the neighbourhood”. She added she is pleased the project, called Armishaw Crossing, will permanently carry the family name and that the proposal offers to reclaim parts of the barn, cobblestone and rail fences.
But Dorrie Roberts, Armishaw’s middle daughter, says she is heartbroken her family’s heritage, and part of the city’s heritage, will be lost.
“My husband and I both worked alongside my dad for 40-odd years on the farm helping out,” she said. “I wish I had the money to buy my sisters out so we could continue on the farm, but it’s hard to make a living these days as a farmer. Once they start digging, I probably won’t go up Third Street for a while.”
Roberts said she’s not sure what her father would have thought about the land being developed.
“He’s not here to ask now, but he was proud of his work and he was proud of his land,” said Roberts, adding that among his farming duties, Armishaw also worked at the Crofton mill and for the federal government. “I don’t think my dad would be pleased, but what can we do and what can we say?”
One aspect of the process that concerns McGown is public consultation. She said the planning process was well underway before neighbours were aware of what was happening.
“I know it’s not our property and that land deals are private, but again, this is a heritage property,” said McGown. “By the time we knew what was going on, the planning process had been going on for at least a year. By the time we got to the public hearing it was all but done, so what input did we really have? The city has things going on like the strategic planning process called Your Voice Our Nanaimo, but I really question the value the city puts on public input.”
In the revised planNanaimo, the city’s official community plan, the Third Street corridor was marked for mixed-use residential housing in an effort to increase population density.
In the fall, the city is also embarking on the Harewood Neighbourhood Plan, which will establish the neighbourhood’s future needs and design as zoning, housing and transportation needs change.
Chris Sholberg, Nanaimo’s heritage planner, said preserving the city’s heritage while moving forward with the official community plan is a constant struggle.
“Part of the rezoning included some conditions related to the heritage character and trying to reflect that in the design elements of the buildings, and trying to maintain some kind of open space, including a community garden aspect,” said Sholberg. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t possible to retain it as a rural farm property given the different objectives at play. We tried our best to reconcile the two perspectives.”
As superintendent of the Vancouver Island Coal and Land Company, Samuel Robins purchased Harewood Estates and developed a plan to subdivide the area into five-acre lots so the company’s miners could provide for their families. The Mottishaw family originally held title to the property in the early 1900s. The Armishaw Farm is the last of those five-acre parcels.