As popular restaurant faces forced closure, owners hope it can be revived
Sunday was the last day of operations for a beloved restaurant on a farm in Nanoose Bay.
Rusted Rake Farm owners Jodie Lucas and Will Gemmell told CTV News Vancouver Island they spent the day feeling emotional and feeling burnt out after a two-year battle with the Agricultural Land Commission that they ultimately lost last week.
"We don't know what our next step is," Lucas said. "We don't know what we're going to do at this point. We're tired. We need a break. We need to just let our hearts and our heads settle down."
When the pair bought the farm, they said, it was in foreclosure. They were able to turn it around, in large part through the success of the Rusted Rake Farm Eatery, which became a community gathering place.
Opening a restaurant posed a problem, however. Because the farm is part of the province's Agricultural Land Reserve, non-farm uses require approval from the ALC. Ultimately, the ALC rejected Lucas and Gemmell's application for the restaurant, as well as for a brewery they had planned on opening.
"It should have been a slam dunk," said Gemmell of the brewery plan, adding that the commission had initially been receptive to the idea before denying it final approval.
Explaining its decision, the commission said it denied the applications because the property isn't zoned for a restaurant. It also said the eatery was constructed without permits from the Regional District of Nanaimo, and that Lucas and Gemmell proceeded with construction despite knowing that it wasn't allowed.
For Lucas, the issue is one that goes beyond her farm's specific application. The province's rules for agricultural land, which are intended -- in part -- to protect farmland from development, are making it difficult for farmers to actually turn a profit on the land they own.
"They really do need to really, seriously, look at allowing farmers to make a living on their land," she said. "You just can't do it under their parameters."
Lucas and Gemmell were also unimpressed with the response they have received from B.C.'s Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham, who they said took the situation as an opportunity to slam the previous Liberal government rather than make changes within her New Democratic Party's control.
"The NDP government is supposed to be for the people and supporting the people, and they're not," Lucas said. "That's just the opposite of what they've done."
The ALC is an independent decision-making body, so the provincial government doesn't have the power to reverse its decision. It could, however, change regulations affecting the ALR.
That's something Lucas and Gemmell are hoping to see happen, particularly given the support they have received from their community and beyond since the decision was announced.
"We've had just an outpour of support and love and concern and frustration," Lucas said. "I've gotten calls from farmers in Ontario with their struggles with agriculture. I've gotten emails and letters from farmers in Manitoba with their struggles with agriculture. It's not a provincial problem. It's a national problem. It's a global problem, at this point."
The pair hopes their supporters will contact Popham and MLA Michelle Stillwell, whose Parksville-Qualicum riding includes Rusted Rake Farm.
"We are asking people for help," Gemmell said. "Hopefully we can revive something out of these ashes."