North Cowichan appears to be leaning toward keeping much of the original Bell McKinnon local area plan in place as the construction of the new $887-million Cowichan District Hospital in the area is scheduled to begin next year.
At a recent committee of the whole meeting, council members decided to recommend that the municipality move forward with much of the local area plan for the Bell McKinnon corridor that was adopted by the previous council in 2018, while plans for the area north of Herd Road, which was part of the original plan, will be determined at a later date.
The recommendation calls for a full build-out along the southern servicing corridor as far as the hospital site, providing for a mix of uses and densities as outlined in the LAP.
This option would see up to 6,000 housing units constructed in the area that will have as many as 12,000 people living in them.
Staff have been directed to bring back further details of development plans to a future meeting of council for consideration.
But council, like the community, is split on how they want development to proceed in the Bell McKinnon area, and the motion at the meeting only passed in a tight four to three vote, with councillors Kate Marsh, Rob Douglas and Christopher Justice opposed.
The opposing councillors want to see less development in the area, and were opting for other alternatives.
In a letter to council, Krystal Adams, executive director of the Chemainus Business Improvement Association, said a decision to move forward with a high-density plan could be devastating for several areas of the municipality.
She said there is a fear that a high-density development plan for the area will take the emphasis away from the existing business communities in the municipality and harm Chemainus, Crofton, downtown Duncan, Cowichan Bay and even Ladysmith.
“Our existing towns need to be focused on with wise urban planning and more importantly, revitalization, and not left behind for the communities’ tax dollars to go to work creating a new village,” she said.
North Cowichan resident Craig Meredith said the chosen high-density option is driven by developers and not the community.
He said municipal residents just completed a community survey for the Official Community Plan and were opposed to such a plan.
“The OCP committee did not recommend it; Douglas, Marsh, and Justice were opposed; the residents of the area were against it in the survey, Cowichan Tribes sent a letter opposing it, and I don’t even know if the City of Duncan was aware of the development,” Meredith said.
Dave Jackson, who lives across the street from where the new hospital will be built and was involved with the creation of the LAP, said the decision by the committee to recommend much of the plan stay in place was “bittersweet” for Bell McKinnon residents.
“It’s acceptable for us who live south of Herd Road, but those north of Herd Road are going to be left out,” he said.
“We were all united when we developed the plan and I would have liked to see this resolved in a different way that would still include north of Herd Road. It seems that the voices of the people who live in the Bell McKinnon area, and the planning process that went into creating the LAP, doesn’t matter to the three councillors who voted against it.”
Coun. Douglas said, despite the fact that the original local area plan called for up to 10,000 housing units with 20,000 residents, he felt that the chosen option is still too much development for Bell McKinnon all at once.
“We need to plan this more carefully,” he said.
“There are concerns around the need for affordable housing, but we have room for more than 9,000 units in our existing growth boundaries in our current zoning.”
Coun. Justice said everything is changing, including the climate and food security, and council and the community don’t know what the future holds.
“Why commit ourselves with this size of a development when we can start small and focused?” he asked.
“It may be that the next councils can adjust the land there to the changing circumstances. Starting small makes more sense to me.”
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie said more than two years of public consultations went into the creation of the award-winning LAP for the area and there are many positive aspects to it.
“Throwing out the plan without fully understanding what’s in it would be an injustice,” she said.
Mayor Al Siebring had staff confirm that many people from outside the Bell McKinnon area could have participated in the recent community survey of the issue, and several times at that.
He said the LAP was developed based on thorough consultations with the actual residents of the area who are most impacted by development plans.
“This issue goes to the heart of how we plan communities,” Siebring said.
“North Cowichan is made up of distinct communities and having people from Chemainus or Maple Bay determine the future of Bell McKinnon is a problem. I can’t find anyone in that area that doesn’t support this plan.”