It's been over a year since I wrote anything on this blog.
Frankly, after what I still consider to be the debacle that was the Climate Action Plan, along with the commensurate (and perpetually embedded) tax that accompanied it, I was disheartened to the point of near despair and pretty much gave up on this regular form of communication.
Part of that was also because a good number of my regular readers were giving me private feedback that they were equally more than a little shell-shocked at the direction the majority of this Council had decided to go, not just on that issue but also on other questions. The votes at the Council table have generally been predictable; with the Mayor and Councillors Hartmann, Marsh, and Lines on one side of most issues, while Councillors Woike, Koury, and myself usually made up the minority.
Sadly, that has been the pattern for much of this Council's term. There's a certain sense of futility when one is continually working within that paradigm.
But today, we took a huge step toward resolving a long-standing issue with something other than a 4-3 vote. The Echo Heights file finally looks to be settled.
If you've been following North Cowichan politics at all in the past fifteen years, you've heard of Echo Heights. It's a 52-acre forested area on the northern fringes of Chemainus; a piece of land the municipality acquired for non-payment of taxes more than 50 years ago. The property has always been zoned for residential development, and as recently as 15 years ago, that was the plan.
But when previous Councils tried to put forward a detailed development plan for the area, all hell broke loose. A group of residents, most of whom live within walking distance of the forest and consider it their private neighbourhood park, formed the Chemainus Residents' Association (CRA), whose main objective consisted of a vociferous campaign to "Save Echo Heights."
They made it clear, both in public and in private sessions with individual councillors, that they would settle for nothing less than 100% preservation of "their" forest. Some vowed, privately, to lie down in front of the bulldozers and chain themselves to the trees if the development were ever to take place.
One of the activists attended a Planning Committee meeting back in 2010 and displayed the kind of histrionics I had never seen before outside of a daycare centre, (and thankfully have never seen since), screaming at staff and councillors through a volley of tears that were were all "the epitome of evil" for even considering the desecration of this sacred forest. It was as though, in her mind, we were sitting at the table and calmly hatching a plan to drown a thousand kittens or something equally unspeakably sinister, rather than engaging in a rational discussion about the disposal of a piece of land that had been expressly zoned for residential development for close to half a century. (For the record, she did send an email the next day, apologizing for her behaviour.)
All of which is to say that this issue has been extremely divisive, especially in Chemainus.
In the past 10 years or so, Council has been inundated with literally thousands of emails, mostly from the activists on the CRA side, with emotional appeals to save the forest. Council commissioned an environmental study which essentially found that while Echo Heights contained a few "Environmentally Sensitive Areas", most of it was second-growth forest with no special environmental value that made it intrinsically worth saving.
And by the end of the 2008-2011 term, we had settled on a development concept plan that saved about half of the forest, including those environmentally sensitive areas, as parkland. The rest would be developed. That issue was set to go to a public hearing for a rezoning in late summer of 2011, but there was a clerical error in the advertising for the public hearing. Given the emotion and history on the file, an amid concerns that the process could be challenged in court, Council cancelled that public hearing and opted not to re-schedule it, mainly because the term was about to run out. The then-mayor, Tom Walker, wisely made the call that we might be accused of hammering through this development plan with just a few weeks left in the mandate of what was by this point a "caretaker Council"; that it was better to leave the issue for the new Council, which was to be elected that fall.
And the CRA was nothing if not persistent. The Echo Heights issue was one of the driving factors in how Chemainus voted in both the 2008 and 2011 civic elections.
And in the 2011 campaign, I made a commitment that I would work to "resolve" the issue before the end of the upcoming (now soon-to-be ending) Council term. I said publicly at the time that I was less concerned with the final outcome of the discussion in terms of land use than I was in putting this issue to rest; to find a way to end the divisions that were clearly fracturing the community.
The new Council didn't really tackle the issue until last year, when we were presented with a new plan that would save 80% of the forest, and develop just 20%. The 20% would be divided up into various types of zoning and land uses to maximize the revenue potential and to provide "innovative" housing solutions; everything from single family homes to carriage houses, small lots, and a multi-family component. There was a major loss in revenue inherent in the new plan as opposed to developing 50% of the land, but in the end, the 80-20 idea got support in its first two readings. I believe the vote was the by-now-familiar split of 4-3, although I could be wrong on that.
But the CRA still wasn't satisfied. They were still banging the drum for 100% preservation.
Then, about three weeks ago, Mayor Lefebure made a new proposal. In essence, he suggested that we develop just under 10% of the forest. The work would be confined only to "previously disturbed areas." The plan also scrapped the notion of "innovative housing"; the area to be developed would remain R-2 - single family homes that would blend into the existing neighborhood. Staff assured us that this would be the cheapest plan in terms of servicing costs, we would simply punch a short road into one of the areas that had been previously disturbed, and create a small cul de sac at the "stub" end of another existing road. Politically, keeping the developed area as R-2 would preclude the need for a public hearing because there would be no need to "re-zone". And the 91% parkland dedication could also be done without a public hearing, as long as 2/3rds of Council supported it.
And the best part, according to the Mayor, was that the CRA was on side with this new plan. They had given up on their dream of 100% preservation, and were prepared to live with a small bit of development on land which had already been disturbed. (In actual fact, that area is currently a patch of scotch broom.)
But the new plan - dubbed "91-9" for its relative percentage allocation of parkland vs development - also involved yet another loss in revenue. Under the 80-20 plan that Council had been considering, our net revenue was projected at about $3.5 million. This is money which is put into our "reverted property fund". Just as a side note, this is a reserve fund where we direct all capital from land sales; the money is then used for capital projects so we don't have to increase taxes. But under the 91-9 plan, the revenue goes down to about $2-million.
When the plan initially came to Council two weeks ago, I expressed concern about the loss of revenue. One and a half million dollars is not an insignificant amount. I proposed that we take another look at the mayor's plan, based on the principle that the CRA had now come around to the notion that "previously disturbed land" was OK for development purposes.
The thing is, the mayor's plan does not take full advantage of all of the previously disturbed areas of the forest. There are several small areas adjacent to his 9% development area which are also seeded to broom. I wanted to ask staff for a report on the potential additional revenues we might be able to gain from also developing those areas. But two weeks ago that idea - in the form of an amendment to the mayor's plan - failed on the usual 4-3 vote. And the 91-9 plan - in the form of a Bylaw - received first reading approval. (I'll let you guess the margin on that vote - think "the usual".)
It's worth noting here that during the first reading debate, and after the amendment had been defeated, Councillor Woike made it clear she would be voting against the plan at first reading, but that she would not be obstructionist on this; that if the majority of Council passed first reading, she would not stand in the way of the 91-9 plan.
Today, we had a vote on 2nd and 3rd reading and, true to her word, Councillor Woike indicated that she would be supporting the new plan. This was an important decision in the broader context, because it also meant that Council would have the requisite 2/3rds majority (5 votes) to dedicate the 91% as parkland.
Councillor Koury remained principially opposed to the 91-9 plan, and during the debate today, I repeated my reservations, and my preference for at least considering the development of the remainder of the previously disturbed area. However, I was also forced to acknowledge that this concept was defeated at the last Council meeting, and that it was clear this wasn't representative of the will of the majority of Council.
Given that I have always considered governance to be "the art of the achievable", and in light of my pledge during the 2011 campaign to bring this issue to a final conclusion, I voted with the majority on 2nd and 3rd readings today.
The final vote was 6-1, with only Councillor Koury opposed. The vote on adoption of the Bylaw - which I expect will go the same way - is due in two weeks. And the issue will be settled.
One more thing. After the debate, I encountered a member of the CRA out in the parking lot. She approached me to shake my hand and thank me for changing by vote. I told her that I only did so as an acknowledgment of the reality that my position wasn't going to win the day, and that I truly wanted this issue resolved for the greater good of the community.
Her response? "Well, Councillor Siebring, let me say that now I respect you."
I replied, "So you didn't respect me before?"
"Absolutely not", she said.
She walked away before I had a chance to respond to that, but it's truly a sad day when "respect" has to mean "agreement". For the record, there are a lot of people I "respect", but with whom I find myself in continual and profound disagreement.
But the comment, in a sense, encapsulates the divisiveness of the entire Echo Heights file. I'll be glad to finally put this one behind us.