Growth strategy reveals a region divided

Saanich directors believe binding arbitration could be required for CRD document

Local critics of the Regional Growth Strategy say it undercuts public transportation by encouraging urban sprawl.

Saanich representatives at the Capital Regional District (CRD) predict disagreements about a plan designed to spell out a common vision for regional growth will eventually require binding arbitration.

Couns. Susan Brice, Judy Brownoff, Colin Plant, and Vic Derman offered this assessment after the CRD had asked the provincial government to initiate the dispute resolution process over the CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy (RGS).

Mayor Richard Atwell also struck a pessimistic note. “Leadership and compromise which have yet to surface will be crucial to achieving a final outcome,” he said. “Right now, the process is entirely bureaucratic.”

So does he think the RGS will go towards binding arbitration? “I don’t think so, at least not right away,” he said.

The RGS commits CRD members to a “common social, economic and environmental objectives” designed to shape the future of the region, according to a Saanich staff report. So far, it has been a source of division.

While its passage required unanimous approval, seven out of 13 member municipalities including Saanich, representing a majority of the regional population, eventually opposed the RGS for a variety of concerns. They include among others plans to pipe water to outlying CRD areas.

“One, it is incredible expensive,” said Derman in describing the significance of the issue. “A lot of people [also] feel that the provision of piped water – and there is evidence for this – is a precursor to [urban] sprawl,” he added.

Sprawl in turn increases traffic congestion and the cost of infrastructure among other issues, he said.

“It is exactly the kind of thing that the regional growth strategy is supposed to control,” said Derman.

Brownoff, who chaired the CRD when its 2003 edition of the Regional Growth Strategy underwent mediation, said the dispute resolution process can work.

This said, she did not sound confident that it would work this time around.

“I personally do not believe some of the major issues of concern will be able to be mediated and that ultimately [binding] arbitration will be invoked,” she said.

Coun. Susan Brice agreed. “There will be efforts made to resolve the differences through mediation but I think it may ultimately be resolved through binding arbitration.”

Coun. Colin Plant sounded even more pessimistic “I am not confident at all this will be resolved without arbitration as there are some councils that are very staunch in their position,” he said.

The CRD initiated the dispute resolution process at its board meeting Feb. 22.

While staff recommended to send the issue to binding resolution, board members opted for non-binding arbitration.

CRD Chair Barb Desjardins said that option offers member municipalities an opportunity to work through most of the outstanding issues on their own.

Binding arbitration, however, would have prevented CRD members from working out these issues on their own, she said.

“No community wants something to be imposed without having had the opportunity of a full and complete dialogue,” she said. “Communities need to be heard,” she said.

This said, Desjardins also acknowledged that the water issue might elude resolution.

“We might not be able to get a firm resolution ourselves,” she said.

So what should the public read into the quality of the RGS if more than half of CRD communities reject it?

“I believe the quality is not in doubt, but what is important to understand is that the region is quite divided on how it believes the region should grow,” said Plant.

“Each [council] likely had different reasons for not supporting the RGS and, in hindsight, we should have tried to find more of a consensus on those issues before sending it out to [councils].”

Brice struck a similar note. “Even though there had been considerable discussion at the CRD, there are some fundamental differences in how best to see the growth managed in the region,” she said.

Brownoff, though, sees some positives amidst this apparent divisiveness. “The public need to understand the RGS is a tool to help ‘promote human settlement that is socially, economically and environmentally healthy and that makes efficient use of public facilities, land and other resources,’” she said. “The public raised issues that this update to RGS is weaker than the original one. They should appreciate that different areas of concern have arisen and the CRD board needs to work through the legislative process.”

Desjardins rejects the argument that this is a dispute between core communities and outer communities. Opposition to the RGS is all over the map, she said.

“I wouldn’t really say it is grounded in geography,” she said. “It’s grounded in other issues.”  They include specific local issues and other factors including the age of local government and infrastructure, as well as different way of doing business, she said.