Drafting the region's future

By Judith Lavoie, June 2015

While Mike Hicks fears the Regional Sustainability Strategy’s teeth will bite his community, others say those teeth aren’t sharp enough.

There’s an unabashedly optimistic vision for 2038 stated in the draft Regional Sustainability Strategy of the Capital Regional District. It states: “We contribute to a healthier planet and create a thriving, sustainable economy that optimizes individual and community wellbeing. Direct, innovative action by the CRD and cooperation with others achieves transformational change by boldly: shifting to affordable, low carbon, energy-efficient lifestyles; expanding the local food supply; stewarding renewable resources; and achieving greater social equity.”

The devil is in the details, of course, but the draft RSS is described as the “road map for how we will work together to reach a shared vision for the region”—a statement begging for a smiley-face emoticon.

Yet anyone familiar with the CRD knows the complications of massaging agreements from representatives of 13 municipalities and one electoral area. When it comes to deciding the future direction of southern Vancouver Island, with topics ranging from development boundaries and housing to climate action, food security and energy systems, battles are inevitable.

Add concerned environmentalists, community organizers and anxious developers and the prospect of a peaceful agreement becomes remote. For the RSS to become law, all municipalities must vote in favour at the CRD board table and municipalities must come up with context statements aligning official community plans with regional priorities.

The most heated debate, so far, is over whether expanding piped water beyond municipalities and growth containment areas will spawn ribbons of rural sprawl or whether everyone has a right to community water. Even though the strategy is still in the draft stage, with no prospect of being adopted as a bylaw for at least a year, a lawsuit over the issue is already lurking. 

“Water is a God-given right,” said Juan de Fuca Electoral Area Director Mike Hicks, who argues that denying piped community water to residents of areas such as Willis Point, Malahat, Shirley and Jordan River, as a way to control development, violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I am going to try my best to convince one or more of these municipalities that Juan de Fuca needs water and to block the RSS. If I am unsuccessful I will challenge the CRD in court,” he said.

CRD staff are recommending that possible water servicing expansion areas should be reduced from the larger Juan de Fuca electoral area to East Sooke, parts of Otter Point and Port Renfrew, with exemptions possible for health or environmental reasons, but, so far, neither side believes it is a good compromise.

Public feedback on whether water servicing should be allowed outside the Growth Containment Area is split about 50-50, but three out of five municipal councils who have responded to the draft plan have said they will not support a policy that allows piped water to be provided to the rural area, said Signe Bagh, CRD regional and strategic planning senior manager, adding that, because of the controversy, the ultimate decision will be political. “This is probably the most significant issue standing in the way of the RSS, so, if the board is not able to come to some direction, it may consider some sort of facilitated process,” she said.

Assuming agreement can be reached, the RSS will replace the Regional Growth Strategy, and, according to CRD chair Nils Jensen, is all about building a better community by setting out a vision of southern Vancouver Island between now and 2038.

The vision’s multitude of perspectives, however, range from municipalities defending their right to control development to groups arguing for all development to be contained in compact, transit-oriented communities.

It is enough to make James Anderson of Amalgamation Yes shake his head with frustration. At a CRD committee-of-the-whole meeting recently, he pointed out that the strength of the RSS is undermined when several councils specifically state they don’t want the CRD to control their Official Community Plans. “They have explicitly asked to weaken the RSS—shame on your councils,” he said.

Not all municipalities have yet responded to the initial request for feedback, but some, such as Langford and View Royal, say the context statement is too prescriptive and municipalities need autonomy to respond creatively to RSS ideals. On the other hand, Central Saanich has asked for a future growth area within its boundaries to be removed.

The CRD cannot bind municipalities in ways they do not wish to be bound, according to Bagh. “Each municipality has veto power,” she said. “It will have whatever strength the municipalities want it to have.”

But the lack of a clear process worries Georgia Lloyd-Smith of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre. She believes that lack could lead to growth boundaries being breached by a single development proposal going to a sympathetic council.

Bagh said that, if a council wants a regionally significant development that does not align with the RSS, the CRD board can refuse to accept it. But the next step is less clear and, too often, can lead to expensive arbitration.

Most of the RSS goals are laudable—for example, who wants to argue against an ambitious plan to reduce region-wide, community- based greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent by 2038?

And, although most of those speaking publicly about the plan want changes, the majority of the 1200 people who responded online strongly supported the overall direction of the plan, Bagh said. “We’re not hearing even the municipalities say ‘abandon the RSS’.”

But the overall strategy is not good enough, speakers told directors at last month’s committee-of-the-whole. They urged the CRD to confront climate change and suburban sprawl head-on with better leadership, enforceable targets, power to bring sprawl-minded municipalities into line, and a stronger voice in provincial overlap areas, such as the forestlands of Juan de Fuca electoral area.

Lyn Bailey, chair of the CRD Roundtable on the Environment, told directors, “Our beautiful home is under serious threat…The viability of this region depends on bold action [on climate change].” She pointed out that, already, the region is off-track for meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions target.

Ana Simeon of the Sierra Club added her voice to the push for a tougher plan, with more emphasis on compact communities and growth containment. “Right now, it’s like a beautiful ceremonial canoe with no paddle. It has excellent principles and values and a very weak process,” she said.

“It’s real pie-in-the-sky rather than boots on the ground,” concurred environmental activist Vicky Husband, who believes the RSS is not as strong as the Regional Growth Strategy and feels that cracks in the Growth Containment Boundary will allow urban sprawl. “We want a growth boundary that can be defended and not breached at the whim of a developer or pro-development council,” Husband said.

Even the title has come under fire, with Highlands council pointing out that sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms.

The plan aims to have 30 percent of new homes built “in walkable, bikeable, transit-serviced communities that provide a variety of housing types and tenures close to places of work, shopping, learning, recreation, parks and green space.”

But critics say that target is not high enough and should be increased to at least 60 percent, allowing infilling rather than suburban sprawl, and that the aim of locating 90 percent of new homes in the Growth Containment Area should be increased to 95 percent, with stronger language defending those boundaries.

Sprawl costs money, transportation and land-use planning consultant Todd Litman reminded CRD directors. He also noted that as baby-boomers downsize, there is going to be a generous supply of single family homes. “There’s growing consumer demand for living in walkable, accessible communities.”

Ground zero for much of the disagreement is Juan de Fuca electoral area, stretching from west of Sooke to Port Renfrew, where the controversy is not only over water servicing, but also about plans for rural settlement areas.

The electoral area had 4400 residents and 1900 homes in 2011 and, under the strategy, numbers are predicted to grow to 6200 residents and 2700 homes by 2038, with most of the development in communities rather than in the natural resource lands.

But opponents see it as rural sprawl in an area described by one speaker as the “lungs of the CRD.”

CRD staff are recommending the rural settlement areas be reduced from initial plans, but opponents such as Husband want them scrapped, saying sprawl is sprawl, whether it’s on large rural lots or in the suburbs.

Long-time activist Ray Zimmerman believes allowing such a designation is an open invitation to developers. “It’s all about real estate sales. It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Jensen, comparing the difficulty of achieving 100 percent consent to the ill-fated Meech Lake Accord, said that, if agreement cannot be reached, the Regional Growth Strategy will continue.

“There may be an opportunity to get consent on the least controversial aspects. There’s a strong likelihood of minor movements, but it’s impossible to predict whether we will get consent on the more controversial issues. It will be a challenge,” he said in an interview. However, Jensen denied he is gloomy about the survival chances for the RSS, emphasizing that he has a naturally optimistic disposition.

A public hearing is likely to be held this fall and, while the strategy continues to wend its way through the CRD process, anyone with an interest in the future of the region should sit down and plough through the ideas and recommendations. It may not be thrilling reading, but it deals with the future of this place we all call home.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith