Saanich council addresses concerns regarding public hearings being waived during the pandemic. (Black Press Media file photo)

Saanich residents wary of waiving public hearings during the pandemic

Ministry of Municipal Affairs allows for public hearings electronically

Some Saanich residents are concerned about the possibility of public hearings being waived for some council matters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a meeting on May 4, Saanich council was to discuss two development permit applications – one at 3281 Cedar Hill Road and the other at 4595 Cordova Bay Road – and in the agenda, it was stated that council would have the option to support the applications and waive a public hearing.

On March 17, the District cancelled all public hearings along with committees, board, foundation and commission meetings until further notice due to the pandemic.

By the morning of May 4, Coun. Nathalie Chambers had heard from several residents who were “upset” about the notion of a public hearing being waived for applications which she said are controversial. Chambers is “strongly opposed” to waiving public hearings as that “civic engagement is the foundation of the District of Saanich.”

Cordova Bay resident Curt Ryane is specifically concerned about the application for a subdivision on Cordova Bay Road. He explained that the proposed development has been controversial for neighbours and from his perspective, waiving it through without a public hearing would be unfair.

“I’d like to say something” and bypassing a public hearing isn’t right, he said. “Anyone who believes in fairness and transparency would agree.”

On May 1, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing released a statement explaining that, under the Emergency Program Act, the province will allow local governments to hold public hearings electronically during the pandemic as “construction and development activities” will likely play a key role in the province’s recovery.

“Amending this order will allow local governments to continue their work on land-use decision-making and keep building their communities,” the Ministry statement read.

The Ministry went on to explain that civic engagement is “an essential part of land-use decision-making,” and that while some decisions may not require a full pubic hearing, councils are expected to provide opportunities for public input.

Chambers feels Saanich council needs a standardized framework before beginning to determine which applications can move forward without a public hearing.

Mayor Fred Haynes emphasized that public input is “fundamental” to local governance and that he understood the wording in the May 4 agenda was alarming to some.

He wanted to reassure residents that, this was council’s first reading for the applications and residents’ concerns are being heard and will be taken into consideration when deciding how to proceed with applications that may require public hearings.

Saanich council needs to have a full discussion on public hearings, Haynes said, noting that he planned to add it to the agenda for the May 4 council meeting. He emphasized that council and staff would need to address all options for electronic hearings and the possible downsides – including security risks and technological limitations.

The ministry has said local governments will be able to decide what electronic methods will work best for public hearings in their municipality – phone in and video conferencing participation were suggested. Councils will also need to provide residents with instructions for participating electronically and continue to accept written submissions as a form of public hearing participation.


@devonscarlett
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devon.bidal@saanichnews.com

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