Members of council clashed sharply Saturday as Saanich moved one step away from temporarily suspending the provisions of a controversial bylaw designed to protect environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs).
Saanich council voted 5-3 to give three readings to a bylaw that would temporarily exclude single-residential properties from the provisions of the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw designed to preserve ESAs against development and restore them. Most of the 2,000-plus private properties in the EDPA fall into the single-residential category.
Mayor Richard Atwell joined Couns. Susan Brice, Fred Haynes, Colin Plant and Leif Wergeland in supporting the temporary suspension motion. Couns. Judy Brownoff, Dean Murdock and Vicki Sanders opposed it.
Council considered the temporary suspension motion as part of a “mega public hearing” that also heard specific applications from 29 homeowners to exclude their properties from the EDPA provisions. Council also broke 5-3 in favour of those applicants, with supporting and opposing coalitions mirroring the temporary suspension vote.
While both decisions require one final vote to become effective, Saturday’s hearing marks a major milestone in the public debate over the EDPA specifically and environmental policy in Saanich generally.
Saturday’s hearing held in the auditorium of the Garth Homer Centre on Darwin Avenue opened at 10 a.m. and concluded around 3 p.m. The concluding debate revealed deep rifts among councillors concerning the future of the EDPA, Saanich’s overall environmental philosophy and the role of government itself.
Perhaps the sharpest general criticism of the EDPA during Saturday’s debate came from Atwell, whose comments framed the EDPA as a paternalistic piece of policy out of step with current times, while difficult to administer.
“For me, we have moved forward years ago with great intentions, but unfortunately, stepped into the quagmire of the nanny state, where we are telling [residents] what is good for you,” he said.
Saanich residents have made it clear that they want to see changes to the EDPA, said Atwell. “And until those changes get made, the best way forward has been this direction for a temporary exemption – temporary – and that’s the key word.”
Questions about the legitimacy of the EDPA did not appear overnight, said Atwell. “It has been…perhaps the most active topic and in order to sort it out, it is going to take some time.”
By suspending the EDPA bylaw, Saanich will “rebuild trust” with taxpayers, said Atwell.
If Atwell spoke for one side of the spectrum, Murdock spoke for the other when he argued that suspending the EDPA now is tantamount to undermining it forever.
“If the EDPA is a house, the roof is leaking and we better get somebody in to have a look,” he said. “I think that sounds reasonable. We want to make sure that we are able to keep the house. What I think we are doing today, under the guise of a temporary exemption, is that we are making a decision to knock the house down.”
He said that Saanich can correct familiar concerns about the mapping and procedural administration of the EDPA within the existing framework. While it would take some effort to address them, Saanich does not need to temporarily suspend the EDPA, pointing to the pending arrival of a report from Diamond Head Consulting.
Saanich commissioned the company to review the bylaw and expects to receive its final report next month.
Murdock’s argument drew audible criticism from members of the audience, but he challenged them.
“Can you imagine what would happen when we decide that we were going to rid of the temporary exemption?” he asked. “I cannot imagine that council meeting that will take place if council decides to re-apply the EDPA, even it comes with a number of those changes.”
Haynes and Plant for their part tried to split the difference, even while voting for the suspension. Haynes notes that the EDPA still applies in case of subdivisions and Plant said it would be ”counter-intuitive” for property owners to deliberately undermine the value of their properties during the suspension period in stressing his personal support for a revised EDPA bylaw that works and enjoys public support.
Haynes meanwhile urged members of the public to treat the issue in a less emotional manner.
“Everybody in Saanich cares for the environment,” he said. “I am very disturbed when I hear the pitting of one group against another. I have people in this room that now have a different body language around me, because they tagged me as one of the councillors who doesn’t like the environment. I don’t get it.”