Thursday, July 3, 2014

Drawing a line in the swamp.

Brace yourself.  The howls of protest are likely to start again.

Council, meeting as Committee of the Whole, decided yesterday to move the "Urban Containment Boundary" (UCB) adjacent to the Somenos Marsh.  This was done as part of our discussion of the new "University Village Local Area Plan", a 30-year vision for the area from Lakes Road across the Highway and into the City of Duncan - basically down to the intersection of Canada Ave and James Street.  The plan envisions a lot of "mixed-use development" with ground floor retail and upper story residential in the area along James Street (near the Community Center and VIU), and is built in part on the hope that VIU will expand, creating a need for student housing in the area, and that the High School will move to the property just north of the existing Pool.  

And all of that stuff was presented to us yesterday with hardly any comment, question, or push-back.  

Instead, we spent the better part of 2 hours talking about moving the Urban Containment Boundary.  

If you're not familiar with the terminology, the UCB is an imaginary and somewhat arbitrary line we draw in our Official Community Plan.  The Boundary is supposed to distinguish between "urban" and "rural" areas.  The idea is to encourage growth in the "urban centres" and to discourage so-called "urban sprawl", which is much more expensive for a municipality to service with things like water, sewer, storm drainage, and roads.   

The last time we went through the exercise of redrawing the UCB was in 2010, when we amended the Official Community Plan.  Specifically with respect to the area south of Somenos Marsh, we drew that line basically along the centre of Beverly Street, and around the back of some of the School District 79 property on the north side of the road.  Here's the map of the existing UCB; it's the black line with the curve/hook running east-west:

Yesterday, we voted to change that boundary.  The line will be moved north, aligning it with the new flood protection dike that has been built there in the past 18 months.  The new delineation looks like this:

So why am I blogging about a mundane change in what amounts to an arbitrary and somewhat artificial boundary on a planning map?

Because I expect that, just as when we were proposing to site the new RCMP station in this area, yesterday’s move will elicit howls of protest from a very vocal segment of our community.  And I want you to know why I voted in favour of the boundary change.

First of all, let’s be clear.  This is not about the “Fun Pacific” property.  The mini-golf site and former go-kart track has existing zoning of C-4.  Moving the boundary has no fundamental impact on the potential development of that site; there’s been talk of a hotel there for years, and that can proceed under either of the two scenarios above.

To me, it’s about what else could be done with the balance of the land.  The environmental crowd would have you believe that the dike is an artificial barrier; that actually, the marsh continues right to the edge of Beverly Street, and that we should take a “BANANAA” approach to development there.  (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone Anytime.”)   And, with the exception of the Fun Pacific site, that’s essentially what keeping the UCB at its present location would have accomplished.

But the fact is that for a large part of the year, the marsh doesn’t even come close to the northern edge of the dike.  That right.  What’s commonly referred to as the "wet side" of the dike isn't "wet" at all.  At least, not all of the time.  Here's a picture I took just today.  I was standing on the dike, about 500 meters east of the intersection of Beverly and the Highway, looking northwest.  What do you see?

The big green patch in the foreground is a field.  It’s immediately adjacent to the dike, and it’s already had one crop of hay (or silage) taken off it.  In a few weeks, it will likely be ready for a second cut.  Off in the distance there’s another field, adjacent to the highway.  Those little green specks are plastic bags/round bales of silage.  My central point with this picture is that, for much of the area in question, “the marsh” doesn’t even come close to the dike for a good part of the year.  Yet we are told that not only should we not build on the north side of the dike (and I would completely agree with that, by the way), but we should also leave the south side alone because it is somehow part of the marsh eco-system, and requires “protection.”

I will happily grant that the area in the picture can get pretty “marshy” in the fall and winter.   It is all low-lying land.   But the “wet side” of the dike is considerably lower than the “dry side”.  An elevation map tells me that the area that is now north of the dike is, for the most part, about 4.8 metres above sea level, while the “driving range” at the Fun Pacific property is 6.4 metres above sea level.  Converting that to Imperial, the difference is about 6 feet. (And by way of comparison, incidentally, the property at Beverly Corners - where the Thrifty’s is located - is at 7.7 metres, and the current high school site is at 9.7 metres.)  

So what does all this mean?  Simply this.  Moving the Urban Containment Boundary allows for some flexibility down the road.  Go back to the second map above.  All that "green area" (labeled "OS - Open Space") is owned by North Cowichan, along with that little brown MF triangle.  The School District has already deemed the property where it's offices are located (the orange "MU-C" block) as "surplus to its needs", and yesterday, we were informed that the new high school, when it is built, will definitely not be going on the existing Quamichan School site.  So in five to ten years, that land could become available as well.  

To be clear, I'm not in favour of "building out" the entire area between Beverly and the dike.  I see huge potential there for a linear park running immediately south of the dike all the way from the Highway to Lakes Road.  

But equally, I'm less concerned than some folks about "building on low-lying land."  The flood risks have been taken care of by the dike, and the earthquake risks can be dealt with.  In Christchurch, New Zealand, for example, they had huge problems with liquefaction in an earthquake that hit there a few years ago.  But they've decided to rebuild, in many instances on the same properties.  How are they doing it?  Well, they're getting help from a Vancouver company which has developed world-leading soil compaction technology, pretty much eliminating the need to put "pilings"under structures being built in flood plains.   

The point is that while the liquefaction concerns are not minor, I have quite a bit of confidence that human ingenuity can find ways to address those issues.   

And let's not forget this.  In spite of the howls of protest you'll no doubt hear in the next few weeks, moving the UCB does not preclude us from doing "environmentally sensitive" things on the dry side of the dike.  But what it does do is potentially allow for a balance; a mix of development and preservation. 

Imagine the possibilities. That little brown MF triangle on the second map above, for example.  (The "MF" stands for "multi-family".)  What if we sold, at a discount, (or even donated) that land to someone like Social Planning Cowichan for affordable or seniors housing?    But those kinds of creative options simply wouldn't be open to future Councils if we had left the UCB where it was.

Just one more thing.  Mayor Lefebure (who cast the only "no" vote with respect to moving the UCB yesterday), made reference to the Somenos Management Plan in the discussion.  The plan, developed back when Rex Hollett was mayor, commits the Municipality to doing ecologically sound planning and development in the area, including planting trees, etc.  I find it interesting that, for the better part of a year (until we received what amounted to an explicit, policy-driven "no" from RCMP headquarters), our staff had absolutely no qualms about recommending the placement of an RCMP station on the dry side of the dike. 

That tells me there were ways to mitigate both the environmental and liquefaction concerns and fulfill our commitment in that Management Plan, while still allowing for construction.  And if it could be done for the RCMP station, I'm sure it could be done for other, future, creative projects that may come up.  

I suspect this debate isn't over.   Yesterday was not a "Council" meeting.  It was "Committee of the Whole", and two councilors, (Hartmann and Marsh), weren't even there for the vote.  

So stay tuned.  This could yet get interesting. 

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