Family business derailed by overpass

Fresh-produce sales down after construction limits access to market

The owner of a South Surrey farm-produce store says construction of a railway overpass has been bad for his business.

Sukhi Rai’s family operates the Surrey Farms market at the corner of 152 Street and Colebrook Road where construction of a $41-million four-lane overpass is underway.

When work began last year, traffic along 152 Street was shifted east along a newly-built side road that runs through what used to be the front parking lot of the store.

As a result, customers can’t turn into the store at the intersection anymore.

They have to use a less convenient exit south of the store, and the effect on the business bottom line has been dramatic, with sales falling to 10 per cent of their usual levels, Rai estimates.

“There is no more bottom line on it,” Rai says. “It’s all bottom.”

He doesn’t have precise figures, but places the dollar loss in the “hundreds of thousands.”

The 152 Street crossing is one of nine overpasses planned for the Roberts Bank rail corridor, the tracks that run through South Delta, Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford to connect the Deltaport deepwater container cargo terminal to Eastern Canadian and U.S. markets.

The overpasses are designed to reduce the number of level crossings and clear up traffic congestion caused when slow-moving freight trains block major roads.

They are also expected to eliminate trains sounding their whistles at the current level crossings in South Surrey, something that has drawn noise complaints over the years from the residential areas nearest the tracks.152 Street (before construction)

On 152 Street, traffic is expected to double to nearly 40,000 vehicles a day by 2021, according to an estimate posted on the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor website.

The City of Surrey is contributing $22.4 million of the $158 million cost of the four overpasses within the community (the others are located at 192 Street, 196 Street and 52 Avenue).

When the Rai family lost their front parking lot to accommodate the side road, the expropriation deal with the city included an agreement to relocate their store to an easier-to-access site south of the overpass.

But because the relocation involves protected farmlands in the Agricultural Land Reserve, the Agricultural Land Commission had to approve it.

And that is where things get complicated, Rai says.

“We’ve been going in circles and circles.”

The regulations that are meant to preserve agricultural land require the Rais to restore the site of the current store so it can be used for crop production.

Rai says that is going to be expensive because someone dumped tons of gravel where the store is before his family bought the farm in 1989.

To dig up all the gravel and replace it with soil that meets ALC standards will cost around $500,000, Rai estimates.

He says it is money his family doesn’t have.

The money they were paid for the loss of their parking lot and other property went to buy some unused farmland west of the overpass at 137A Street and Colebrook Road, which will cost them more money to upgrade for blueberry production.

With store sales at a fraction of their former levels, only the Rai’s sideline construction business is keeping the family afloat financially, Rai says.

“If it was only farming, it would be a problem,” Rai says. “We had to plough under 10 acres of strawberries (because sales are down).”

Staying put isn’t an option.

When the overpass is completed in 2014, the temporary side road that runs through the former parking lot will become a permanent link road that allows northbound traffic on 152 to turn east and west on Colebrook.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do in the next couple of years here,” Rai says, adding the family has attempted to negotiate a compromise with the city and the ALC, without success.

They are now consulting a lawyer about seeking compensation, Rai says.

In response to a query from Peace Arch News, City of Surrey transport planning manager Philip Bellefontaine noted the ALC – not the city – has the final say over provincially-protected farmland.

Brian Underhill, an executive director of the Agricultural Land Commission said a review of written records shows it was the city and the Rais who proposed remediation of the farm site, and the ALC simply endorsed it as “sensible.” Underhill said he could not find any record of the city or the Rai family advising the ALC about a problem with the cost.

“They could certainly approach us,” Underhill said.

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