An accumulation of tragedies

By Aaren Madden, September 2011

Metchosin Mayor John Ranns believes the approval process for a development next to Juan de Fuca Marine Trail has become an affront to democracy.

Juan de Fuca Provincial Park is a sweep of lush forest, rugged, rocky coast and rolling shoreline stretching from China Beach to Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Whales breach offshore, seals play, waterfalls rush to meet the tide, bears roam, and mist rolls onto the beach on even the hottest summer days. The magical atmosphere assures any visitor they stand somewhere that is not only wild, but also unique in the world.

Unique also are the byzantine legal machinations that allow five people to decide the fate of the second-growth forest adjacent to this regional jewel. Even more deeply lamentable is the real possibility that the decision about whether or not to allow a resort development there will be taken out of the public’s hands entirely and placed into that of the courts. So says Metchosin Mayor John Ranns, who, as a member of CRD Land Use Committee A, is one of those five people, and the only one to vote against Marine Trails’ resort proposal for the area. 

A born-and-raised Metchosinite, the former union president and chief negotiator was first elected to council in 1987 and became mayor in 1992. Starting in 2000, he spent six rewarding years as a school board trustee. He’s now in his fifth term as mayor, and is looking forward to at least one more (“It’s always just one more,” he laughs). There are a few things he’d like to see through, like treaty negotiations with the Scia’new First Nation at Becher Bay. “Things are looking good,” he says of that process. He can’t say the same about the proposed development. 

To encapsulate how we got here, in January 2007 the province allowed Western Forest Products to release 28,000 hectares from Tree Farm License status on southern Vancouver Island. Concerned about the loss of the natural area to sprawl, the CRD asked the province to buy the land. They refused, so the CRD downzoned the land to minimum 120-hectare parcels, hoping to buy some time and preclude rampant precedent-setting development. Ranns explains, “This was the one opportunity we have actually had to take this enormous area and plan it before we do anything with it.” 

Soon after the downzoning, the CRD adopted an Official Community Plan (OCP) for the area. However, its wording was vague enough that developer Ender Ilkay of Marine Trails Holdings purchased 236 hectares and was able to push through a proposal for over 250 cabins, plus lodges, recreation and staff buildings, septic fields and roads nudging within 100 metres of the southern edge of the park. “Whose responsibility was that? Mine,” Ranns admits, “along with everybody else who voted for [the OCP].” Though he had reservations, he “never dreamt that the first proposal down the track would end up being rammed through.” In retrospect, “I would have demanded a much more comprehensive OCP than the one that was actually approved,” he laments.

Enter Committee A. It was never created for decisions of this magnitude, Ranns says. The number of directors in the large but sparsely populated Juan de Fuca electoral area dwindled as municipalities incorporated. Needing motions seconded and local variances approved, the CRD assembled a subgroup consisting of representatives from Sooke, Colwood, Metchosin, and Langford, along with the director of the Juan de Fuca Electoral area. After much friction, it was disbanded and replaced by a more workable structure. But the downzoning of the former WFP land spawned a lawsuit that deemed the new structure illegal and reinstated the previous one. Ranns relates, “The same problems that existed with the first Committee A exist with this one: you’ve got a majority of pro-development municipalities making decisions in a rural area. Other than Metchosin, each of the municipalities on Committee A has no urban containment boundary. There is no logic to it whatsoever.”

Nor is there in the case of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area’s OCP. Although not binding like a municipal regional context statement, it is meant to align with the Regional Growth Strategy and is under the purview of the entire board. Except when it isn’t. Ranns elaborates: “Court precedent says the board should be making the decision on this land. Another part of the act says Committee A is the board. Our solicitors have said it’s an anomaly, and it’s unique in North America. Nowhere else can a subcommittee overrule the main board.”

Approving the development does just that, all while slamming headlong into public opinion. “In the 16 years I have been in the CRD, never have I seen as strong an expression of the public will as there has been on this,” Ranns states. Only three of over 1000 emails he has received so far on the issue were in favour of the proposal.  

Compounding the issue is a lack of accountability within Committee A. Two of the five members, Colwood Mayor Dave Saunders and Sooke Mayor Janet Evans, are not seeking re-election. “There is no responsibility. Our democratic society has put this decision in our hands because we are answerable to the public, yet two of those people are not even answerable, because they are not running again. If they had any sense of ethic, they would step out,” he admonishes. 

He says this decision should be made by the entire board, based on two tests: public will—which has already “failed abysmally”—and public interest. Understanding the public interest aspect requires time that the downzoning was supposed to allow. “One of the things that has not even been talked about is what types of economic development would occur in Jordan River and Port Renfrew if that [land] of Ilkay’s were made a park,” he muses, pointing to Tofino and Ucluelet bookending Pacific Rim National Park, as “an example of how successful having a park like that between two communities can be.” With a comprehensive plan for this area—which represents about half of the land mass of the CRD—the CRD could get buy-in from a previously reluctant province. 

On September 6 and 7, there will be public hearings at Sooke Community Hall. Ranns expects outcomes similar to previous ones: a resounding “no” to the proposed development. That outcry could be muted on September 14, when Committee A votes on third reading of the bylaw. If they vote yes, “the only recourse [the CRD] has is to take it to court,” Ranns says. 

Ranns resents being backed into this corner. It’s not just that it makes the CRD look pretty stupid. “It is stupid, but there’s more to it than that,” argues Ranns. “By suing ourselves, it takes the decision-making capacity out of the elected officials’ hands. It will be a judge who makes the decision as to whether this is consistent [with the Regional Growth Strategy and the OCP] or not.”

That, for Ranns, is the worst of an accumulation of tragedies made all the more painful by their preventability. 

Aaren Madden was once so entranced by the beautiful, teeming tidal pools at Botanical Beach that she let her shoes get swept away in the rising tide. She has since learned to carry them when exploring the shore.