Saanich’s byelection delays public input on EDPA report until October

Saanich residents will have to wait until October to comment on a bylaw that aims to protect environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) but has also generated controversy.

Council has asked staff to schedule a meeting in October to receive public input on a long-awaited report into the future of the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw from Diamond Head Consulting. It is likely that Saanich will hold that meeting in a special location to ensure full public participation.

Coun. Judy Brownoff said it is appropriate to push reception of public input into October as Saanich residents will elect a new council member on Sept. 23 to fill the seat left vacant since the death of Vic Derman in March. “I agree with comments that were made by citizens about holding this next meeting in October, after September, ” she said. “September is a crazy month, not only because we have a byelection, but as members said, that is when people are coming back from holidays.”

Coun. Fred Haynes agreed. “This is something that should be debated and decided on by a full council,” he said. The public heard that could happen by Oct. 2, council’s first scheduled meeting in October.

Council agreed to this schedule after from formally receiving the report and hearing from members of the public, as well as Jimmy Brett Allen, Diamond Head’s senior planner and biologist.

Saanich commissioned the report for the purpose of improving (rather than eliminating) the bylaw after residents had raised concerns about its economic effects, ecological effectiveness and process. Overall, it calls on Saanich to improve the “shared understanding” of the “intent and purpose” of the bylaw in offering 15 recommendations.

Allen said during his presentation that Saanich’s EDPA bylaw does not significantly depart from EDPA bylaws in nine other surveyed communities.

“The EDPA that you have written is not too far form what other municipalities are asking their residents do,” he said. “Other municipalities are asking their residents to do much more.” However what differentiates Saanich from the other communities is the political climate that surrounds the EDPA, he said.

Allen said the polarization around the EDPA shocked him and the report was ultimately trying to find some common ground. “This perhaps more of a political document than a scientific document,” he said.

Allen’s presentation was full of such balancing moments. In discussing the recommendations, he said Saanich can lead by example in waving its own exemption from the provisions of the bylaw. “That might be an easy place to start and foster some sense that we are all in this together,” he said. He also called on Saanich to rely less on the “stick” and more on the “carrot” in encouraging home owners to preserve and restore ESAs.

But he also challenged one of the fundamental aspects of the current EDPA process: the ability of property owners to hire Qualified Environmental Professionals (QEPs) as the final judges of whether properties should remain in the EDPA.

“I would caution against always deferring to the QEP,” he said. “That is travelling down a road fraught with challenges.”

Other communities, he said, have hired in-house staff to help develop internal expertise and standardized processes, he said.

Allen spoke after council had received comments from several members of the public.

Karen Harper, one of three declared candidates running for council’s open seat, asked council to schedule public input on the report after September to ensure maximum public input, a point echoed by other speakers, such as Mark Vincent, who said that the “contentious nature” of the bylaw demands sufficient time to digest and deliberate the report and its recommendation.

Anita Bull, president for Saanich Citizens for a Responsible EDPA Society, agreed. As for the substance of the report, she said it does not bring “closure” to the issue. “It is only the beginning of the way forward,” said Bull. This process needs to happen “carefully and slowly” with the support of the landowners, she said. While Bull said her group supports many recommendations of the report, she added the report was silent on other issues that still need to be resolved such as the role of landowners.

Bull said Saanich should establish an independent consultation process that is open and objective. Much work remains before Saanich has a new EDPA bylaw, said Bull, who offered Saanich her group’s assistance.

The report marks the second major report addressing the EDPA. A report released in January found the EDPA has caused confusion, but done little to diminish property values, as EDPA critics have claimed. That report however acknowledged that it was working with an insufficient sample of affected properties to “facilitate a thorough analysis” of the EDPA, an admission that might strike some as fatal since the report only studied the EDPA’s economic impact.

This second, more substantive report appears several weeks after council excluded nearly 30 properties from the EDPA revisions and ratified the temporary exclusions of single-residential properties from EDPA provisions, with exceptions for rezoning and subdivision applications following a mega-public hearing that revealed deep divisions among councillors. The report acknowledges both decisions, but neither comments nor contextualizes them.

Finally, the report appears to be bearing bad news for those who might have hoped that it signals the end of various EDPA controversies. “Full implementation of some recommendations will require additional detail beyond the scope of this review, including additional stakeholder engagement,” it read.

Some recommendations may take more than three years to implement.

Coun. Leif Wergeland acknowledged this prospect when he suggested that council should develop a process now rather than wait any longer.