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Standing room only at public hearing

Hundreds of people attended a public hearing on a contentious land swap issue in Summerland Monday night.

The majority were opposed, judging from a show of hands requested by one of the many speakers.

"If Summerland succeeds in removing this land, a precedent will be set and other communities will follow suit," said Erin Carlson, leader of Stop the Swap, a movement opposing the plan. "The ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve), must remain strong."

The evening in the Arena Banquet Room was attended by residents, as well as Mayor Janice Perrino, council members and  staff. The room reached capacity early, leaving some unable to get in.

It included an open house where the public was invited to learn more about Summerland's urban growth strategy; the district is proposing to exclude 199 acres from the ALR near the downtown core and instead include another 226 acres in a different area.

Residents are against this because they claim the land being excluded is prime class 2 or 3 agricultural land, while the properties being included offer marginal, hilly land, in the class 5 or 6 category.

Other concerns range from a need for agricultural land here while California is grappling with a drought, a desire to preserve the land for future generations, and losing the beauty of Summerland to an oversupply of housing that could result from the plan.

In an emotional presentation, Julie Sardinha, the widow of the late Joe Sardinha, former leader of the BC Fruit Growers Association, addressed the issue of food security.

"I drove home through Californiia, where it is completely brown," she said. "Food security is an issue today and will be a crisis tomorrow."

She also talked of her husband's tireless effort to preserve the ALR, and suggested the current effort is nothing more than a shell game being played -- that every time there is a proposed development, it is the flat land, the ALR land.

Keith Carlson, Erin's father and CEO of the Okanagan Plant Improvement Corporation, stressed that Summerland is known for its agriculture and is an important supplier of cherries and apples.

"We are here to ensure agriculture survives in our valley for the next 100 years," he said. "Houses can be built anywhere, farmland is irreplaceable."

Others suggested different locations in the district that would better serve the purpose and some expressed fear their concerns were falling on deaf ears, believing the swap will still proceed.

If that happens, said one, they, the council, would take on the role of bullies rather than true leaders.

There was support for the growth strategy from a handful of speakers.

Arlene Fenrich, president of the Summerland Chamber of Commerce, said she applauded the discrict on the process and that the downtown is the best place to put these homes because it will bring business to the area.

People sat quietly listening for the most part through the long hearing, as they were asked not to clap or cheer for individual speakers, because it could intimidate others.

Although there was applause when something was said that truly struck a chord.

Carlson did more than just speak, she handed a petition, with signatures collected by Stop the Swap, to Perrino.

At the earlier open house, residents were invited to view maps, talk to staff and learn what comes next.

The matter will likely be addressed again at the March 10 council meeting.

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