At issue were the plans by the municipality to site the long-awaited skate park on the old Chemainus Elementary School site.
Some context, of you're not familiar with the issue. We've been talking about putting a skate park in Chemainus since at least 1997. That's almost 20 years. In that time, a lot of things have happened.
Of greatest significance to me personally is that, around 10 years ago, a bunch of skate board enthusiasts in the community - mostly kids - did a bunch of fundraising, and put together more than $5,000 toward construction of their skate park. They gave that money to North Cowichan, full of eager anticipation that the donation would help speed up a decision on the construction of the park. They gave us that money before I got on Council in 2008; it's been sitting in a designated bank account since then, and every year Council has "rolled it over" to future years on the expectation that some day, this thing will get built. But the reality is that the "kids" we were talking to when this whole concept first got started 17 years are adults today, and some are starting to have kids of their own; kids who are getting close to the age where they might actually become the users of the facility.
So what's been the hold-up? Primarily, it's been about finding the right location. There have been a variety of proposals. Everything from putting it outside of town adjacent to the Fuller Lake Arena to siting it downtown; there was even some talk of putting it in or adjacent to Waterwheel Square. In 2010, we considered putting it at the St. Joseph's Catholic School site, by the ball fields, until the broader idea of a property acquisition there - potentially including part of the school site - fell through.
Then, a little over a year ago, we ended up with a new option. Chemainus Elementary School had closed, and there was some interest on Council's part in acquiring the land there. Long story short, staff did some research and discovered that in actual fact, the Municipality already owned the land. We had donated that property to the School District back in the 1950's on the condition that it would be returned if the site was no longer required or being used specifically for educational purposes.
So last summer (June 2013), we did a community engagement exercise, in which participants were given what amounted to a blank sheet of paper; an outline of the school property. They were given a list of options for what to do with that land - what should be included in any future development plan. The options included some new residential development with varying degrees of density, and also included the potential of locating the skate park and an off-leash dog park in the area. The consultation involved breaking down the participants into groups of 5 or 6 people, who were each given a copy of the "blank slate map" and some Sharpie markers. They were given free reign to "design" what the area might come to look like, and what features should be included or excluded. There were a total of 16 small groups. All but two of them included a skate park in their design plans.
Based on that input, staff have come up with a couple of potential development plans for the property, which were presented at the meeting in Chemainus on Tuesday night. Here's one of the options - click on the picture for a larger view:
For the Tuesday night meeting, we had specifically invited people from the neighborhood; the folks who would be most directly impacted by this plan. About 50 of them showed up, and of particular interest to them was that the fact that the skate board park was included in both plans. That inclusion would have been the trigger to cue the pitchforks, had they been on sale earlier in the week.
The primary concern they expressed was the "noise factor". Some people talked about skateboards being as noisy as "gunshots." One of the residents demanded that we do a noise study to determine the quantitative effect of the noise on the neighbourhood. "Let's see if the sound levels will exceed the municipality's noise bylaw", was his central theme. But when I tried to gently ask how the group would feel if that study were to show that the noise would indeed be kept within statutorily acceptable levels, the room practically erupted with catcalls. "Don't you understand?", one person shouted, "We don't want a skate park! Period!!" The message I heard, quite clearly, was that a noise study would actually be a waste of money, because if the conclusions didn't line up with community expectations, these folks weren't going to accept the results of that study anyway.
There were also other concerns, including a worry about declining property values. Some people expressed a strong preference for their neighbourhood as it is currently laid out, and worried about the extra traffic that would be brought in with the new development, particularly because of the connectivity that would be created between the streets that currently "dead-end" onto the school property. (Lang, Severne, and Elliott.)
And there were concerns that the skate park might be built in contextual isolation; that the rest of the concept plan for the area would fall by the wayside. To alleviate this concern, someone tried to make a motion to the effect that the neighbourhood would only support a skate park after the existing school had been torn down and the new lots had been fully built out in accordance with the plan. (That motion looked like it was going to pass until I pointed out that it would, in essence, be giving tacit approval to building the skate park under certain conditions. Once people figured that out, the motion wasn't even put to a vote.)
Bottom line is that they were adamant; they didn't want the skate park in their neighbourhood. Some of them privately (and almost defiantly) acknowledged to me after the meeting that, when it's all said and done, they are "NIMBYs". Folks who clearly and unapologetically say "Not In My Back Yard."
(It's also worth noting that both the Mayor and I were told that supporting this proposal would cost us votes in November - that the neighbourhood would mobilize to ensure we were replaced with people who would actually "listen to the community." He and I were the only two people from Council at the meeting.)
So what might be the alternative? Virtually everyone in attendance wanted the skate park located on lands adjacent to the Fuller Lake Arena. They insisted that the distance from the core of Chemainus would not be an impediment, citing the use of the beach and the facilities there today as evidence that the users will find a way to get there.
Proponents of the Fuller Lake site also pointed to other skate parks in the area. The one in Lake Cowichan is tucked away behind their arena. The Duncan facility is located behind the pool, and not near any residential areas. And down in Mill Bay, the skate park is out in the country, beside the playing fields at the Kerry Park Rec Centre.
But here's some realities about those other locations. Lake Cowichan's skate park, hidden away as it is from public view, has become a bit of a magnet for trouble-makers. Because no one can see it, it's become a primary place in the community for drug deals and other illicit activity. Similarly, the site in Duncan is constantly being ravaged by graffiti, and has at times become a haven for a few undesirables who tend to spoil it for the kids who want to go there just to have some skate-boarding fun. One of the reasons the Chemainus facility is being proposed for the school site is precisely because it's not an "out of sight, out of mind" location. Undesirable activity will be very quickly identified and curtailed, because there are lots of people living there; walking their dogs, mowing their lawns, chatting with their neighbours, and generally being "community."
And Kerry Park? One of the participants at the meeting described that "rural" location in glowing terms because it was so far removed from residential areas. But then concluded his commendation of that site with the phrase: "... it really is a great spot. And there was hardly anybody there." As though somehow that was a good thing. Really? Do we want to build a community recreation facility which, by its very location, will ensure that only a few people use it? Isn't that a bit of a counter-intuitive waste of money?
By now, you're probably getting the impression that I did not put a lot of stock in the objections that were expressed at the meeting. That's partially true, but there were some valid points.
One had to do with the hours of operation of the Skate Park. The proposal is that - like other municipal parks - it be open on a "dawn-to-dusk" schedule. That any late night or very early morning activity would be subject to Bylaw enforcement and ticketing. Which is fair enough, assuming we can get the requisite authorities out there at those late (or early) hours to write the tickets. And, as anyone in Chemainus can tell you, that can sometimes be a challenge. But the RCMP was represented at Tuesday night's meeting, and I think they heard the demand for strict enforcement of the rules quite clearly.
The other point centered on whether the park would include washroom facilities. The worry, of course, is that if individual skateboarders spent long stretches of time there, they'd end up doing their business in the trees and shrubs that are being proposed for a "noise buffer" at the east end of the skate park. (Oh, I didn't mention that, did I? The design includes as much noise buffering for the neighbourhood as possible. Click on the image above, and you'll see a bunch of little green circles between the skate park and the new homes. Shrubs and trees.) But there was a consensus that a washroom would be needed there, and that issue will almost certainly come back for further discussion.
But here's the bottom line. It is abundantly clear to me that by and large, the neighbourhood immediately around the school property does not want a skateboard park located on that land. I understand those concerns, and I agree that we need to do whatever we can to mitigate any potentially negative effects of a decision to put it there. I want to take the concerns of those residents seriously.
But basing the decision exclusively on the feedback from the people who attended the Tuesday night gathering would be somewhat myopic. I posted a brief status update on my FaceBook page about this meeting as it was underway, and a friend in North Vancouver almost immediately posted the following comment:
"For what it's worth, I have 2 Skateboard parks within 6 blocks of my house... I didn't think it would happen, but they have become an excellent meeting place for active youth, without the nightmares one may assume of vandalism and drugs. Youth need places like this."And in that context, it is very clear to me that the broader community of Chemainus is sick and tired of the stalling on this project. For almost 20 years, the NIMBY-ism surrounding this has kept it from being built anywhere. The money to build it - including a community donation, given in good faith - was set aside years ago, and keeps getting rolled over to "next year."
Let's have a rational discussion about the legitimate issues - the bathrooms, noise abatement, and enforcement of the hours of operation. But once those have been resolved, let's get 'er built.
And please.. let's put the pitchforks back in the barn.