Catholic church buys $7.5M equestrian facility in Abbotsford, plans ‘agri-retreat’ centre

Church hopes to grow crops, host students and others on Bradner property

One of the priciest agricultural properties in Abbotsford was bought in 2017 by the Roman Catholic Church, which hopes to operate an “agri-retreat” at the Bradner property, The News has learned.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver bought the 40-acre Townshipline Road property for $7.5 million. In 2015, when it was listed for $7 million, the property was described as “the ultimate equestrian facility” and “a dream property for discerning equestrians.” It includes a coach house above a garage, a lavishly detailed 10-stall barn, a hockey-rink-sized riding arena, and an equipment shop and recreation area, along with a two-bedroom manufactured home.

Last year, a development company hired by the church submitted an application to the city detailing its plans to convert the equestrian centre on site “into a farm enterprise use producing a variety of agricultural products.” The church envisions partnering with local companies and organizations to provide a space for students, parish groups and other visitors to work on a farm and learn about agriculture, according to the church’s application.

A copy of the application was obtained by The News through a freedom of information request that sought information on an unrelated subject.

The church has not yet responded to The News’s request for further comment.

To operate its centre, the archdiocese needs the sign-off from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to allow a non-farm use on the site, which is in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The diocese must be able to show that its plans will benefit agriculture, and its application argues that will be the case. The church hopes to grow blueberries, along with crops like grapes and figs. Onions, durham wheat, beans and lentils could also be grown on the property, according to the report.

The proposal has not yet come before council, which gets to decide whether to forward the application to the ALC.

Currently, the property is used as a private equestrian facility, which is permitted in the ALR, but does not involve the growing of food products.

“The proposed agricultural development will provide a substantial net increase of agricultural production compared to the current situation,” the report says. “The benefits of the proposed use will enhance agriculture in the short and long term.”

The application does not outline the church’s precise plans for the large, well-appointed buildings on site, including a finely finished stable and tack room. A riding arena would be converted into a building with administration offices, classroom space, a cafeteria and a chapel.

The retreat would also see the creation of six cabins, each of which would be about 1,200 square feet and sleep eight people, along with a larger staff residence.

Days after the church submitted its proposal to the city, applications were submitted to subdivide two neighbouring farm plots owned by a family into smaller parcels.

The application says the church hopes to partner with several companies and organizations, including a company that has “proposed a design for an outdoor [augmented reality] Agriculture Museum located adjacent to the proposed Agri-Retreat Centre.”

The Aquilini Group has also promised to “help build a sustainable farming operation.”

A variety of educational initiatives are also envisioned, including day programming for underprivileged kids, support for international workers and the provision of community gardens. The application says that about 50 schools have shown interest in visiting the agri-retreat.

To make its cause for the ALC’s support, the application points to several other agricultural-oriented retreats in B.C., including Fountainview Academy between Lytton and Lillooet and the Po Lam Meditation Centre in Chilliwack.

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