A controversial bylaw designed to protect environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) is on its way out.
Council, meeting as committee-of-the-whole, voted 5-4 Saturday to rescind the Environmental Development Permit Area EDPA bylaw. Mayor Richard Atwell, Coun. Susan Brice, Coun. Fred Haynes, Coun. Karen Harper, and Coun. Leif Wergeland voted in favour of rescinding the bylaw, which Saanich introduced in 2012.
Coun. Judy Brownoff, Coun. Colin Plant, Coun. Dean Murdock, and Coun. Vicki Sanders voted against rescinding the bylaw.
Council’s narrow vote against the EDPA came during a lengthy meeting Saturday scheduled to hear public input on a report recommending various improvements to the controversial bylaw that has been subject of lengthy, often divisive debate. Critics of the bylaw say it has restricted their ability to modify their properties, and lowered their property values.
While Council had commissioned the report from Diamond Head Consulting in May 2016 to improve the EDPA, Saturday’s hearing into the report turned out to be the occasion of its demise, provided council confirms the vote during its next regular meeting.
Saturday’s vote also marks a major political victory for newly-elected Coun. Karen Harper, who had campaigned on rescinding the bylaw during the byelection that led her to take the council seat open since the death of Vic Derman, an ardent supporter of the EDPA.
Harper acknowledged that Saturday’s vote fulfills one of her three campaign promises, but noted that any councillor depends on support from others.
“I’m pleased by the outcome, but I’m also saddened that it took us so long to find a stage, where we can move forward,” she said. “It’s not a moment of celebration, it is a moment of reflection.”
Atwell said in an interview after the vote that the EDPA was a “draconian bylaw” that focused on the wrong problems, offering “weak environmental protection” along the way.
“As a bylaw and policy, it clearly wasn’t working for homeowners and needed to be thrown out,” he said. “I tried to rescind the bylaw at council two years ago, without success, because my sense was that we would end up here anyway.”
Atwell was especially critical of the atlas that identifies ESAs subject to EPDA provisions. The atlas that served as the basis for the EDPA was not only inaccurate, but also targeted the wrong areas, by focusing on lawns, gardens, front and back yards, he said.
“Saanich needs strong environmental protection where it makes sense, and I believe that when it’s scientifically arrived at, it will garner widespread support,” said Atwell.
Plant said in a Facebook post that the EDPA bylaw in its current form needed to change. “In my opinion the EDPA needed to be revised and replaced,” he said. However he opposed rescinding the bylaw. “I was opposed because I believed that while we rebuild the EDPA bylaw it would have been unwise to rescind the bylaw and leave only the pre-EDPA protections in place,” he said. “To put it bluntly, rescinding and rolling back to 2012 measures gives us less protection than the current EDPA,” he said.
Harper disagrees. Saanich has many measures that protect the environment, she said. “I don’t believe we have left Saanich in jeopardy,” she said.
Plant said he recognized that the EDPA angered many. “I appreciate that people were emotional and upset and really wanted the current EDPA to simply go away but the method we are now to proceed with…sees us with less protection than we currently have while we come up with a new EDPA bylaw,” he said.
Following the vote to rescind, council eventually instructed staff to develop a Saanich program addressing environmental topics like climate change, biodiversity and stewardship to “serve as a policy framework for other Saanich environmental policies and programs and that a new EDPA be considered as part of this program.” This report would consider the report recommendations of the Diamond Head report.
Council approved that motion by a vote of 6-3 with Atwell, Harper and Wergeland opposed.
Plant called that vote an important signal to the community. “I suggest this motion was important because after the rescinding of the EDPA, I believe Council needed a way forward that was more than just an EDPA rebuild.”
Plant used the following metaphor to describe council’s path forward. “Saanich is building a new house and while we are building that new house, Council has decided to go live out in a tent rather than the house it is currently staying in.”