North Cowichan’s business community had their voices heard Monday.
North Cowichan’s council rejected a motion in a 5-2 vote that called for limiting development in some areas in the municipality until a review of the official community plan is completed at its meeting on Jan. 20.
The contentious issue mobilized many in the local business community, particularly the development industry, to fight against the motion, and council chambers and overflow rooms in municipal hall were packed with people at the lengthy meeting on Jan. 20.
The sounds of truck horns reverberated through council chambers as dozens of dump trucks from a number of development companies circled the municipal hall when the meeting began at 6 p.m. as the drivers showed their support to have the motion defeated.
People took their turn at the podium for hours to express their opinions, with the vast majority speaking against the motion.
David Messier from Cowichan Works, a group comprised of business owners, landowners, realtors, developers, contractors, property managers, financial consultants and others in the Valley, said the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and while the motion is well meaning, it would be a disaster for many in the community.
“Clearly, no one understands the implications of this motion on local businesses, and a staff report has indicated that legal challenges are likely,” Messier said.
“It sends a message that doing business in North Cowichan is risky. This motion is confusing and has profound implications and it’s not in the public’s best interests.”
Councillor Christopher Justice first introduced the notice of motion in December by telling council that sensitive ecosystems and other issues related to growth were not considered when North Cowichan developed the maps for its urban containment boundaries, and development pressures on these lands are expected to increase over the next year and a half during the time that the municipality will be conducting the review of its official community plan.
Council decided at the time to defer further discussion on Justice’s motion until staff had prepared a report on the issue.
The report by director of planning and building Rob Conway was on Monday’s council agenda. It stated that legal challenges were likely if North Cowichan’s council adopted the motion.
Conway also said that the initiative could impact the reputation of North Cowichan as a place for investing and doing business, and it could have unintended consequences, such as pushing development to rural and suburban areas outside the municipality.
Dave Jackson, who spoke at Monday’s meeting on behalf of residents and land owners in the Bell McKinnon Road area, one of the areas Conway highlights in his report that would have been impacted by the motion if it passed, also encouraged council to reject the motion.
“The economic impacts and unintended consequences of this proposed motion have not been thoroughly analyzed or understood,” he said.
“Even the NDP [provincial] government does economic assessments of their policies to identify financial or legal risks. As taxpayers, we must be more informed of the actual consequences of this motion.”
One man named Mark was one of the few at the meeting who spoke to support the motion.
He said he didn’t appreciate the “tremendous show of force” of the opponents of the motion at the meeting, and felt it was an intimidation tactic.
“People are saying that the motion will lead to increased taxes, but politicians say that all the time,” Mark said.
“People are also saying that the motion is too much, too fast. There’s no time in history when that argument hasn’t been tried. I support this motion.”
Justice clarified that the motion would have no effect on commercial or industrial development, and would have no effect on the building of the new hospital, which is expected to be built on Bell McKinnon Road, or the new RCMP building.
He also pointed out that the motion proposed only a partial and temporary pause in processing some applications in some areas of the community while the municipality considers how it wants to grow in the future.
Justice asked staff to estimate the percentage of North Cowichan’s residential supply that would be impacted by the motion if it passed.
Conway said it could have a big impact, but it’s difficult to determine hard numbers.
CAO Ted Swabey said staff need more clarity to be more accurate in their numbers.
“The challenge we have is that we are working with assumptions on what is being proposed,” Swabey said.
“We can’t give straight answers as to the number of lots and the legal implications because each one is different.”
Coun. Rob Douglas said that “on paper”, North Cowichan has a good official community plan, but there are problems with the urban containment boundary in the municipality that need to be dealt with.
“The UCB does not align with the principles of the OCP,” he said.
“There has been a lot of concerns expressed about the need for meaningful public engagement on this issue and I agree. But by not discouraging development permits in some areas, it could impact our OCP process.”
Coun. Kate Marsh said she believes Justice’s motives in making the motion were sound, but she wasn’t prepared to make a decision on the issue until full consultations were held with the community.
“I commend Coun. Justice for his courage to bring this forward and his determination to get the answers he needs,” Marsh said.
“I can’t support this motion, but I really hope we can all work together on these issues. I’m really pleased to see that this motion has drawn people to this meeting that I haven’t seen here before.”
Coun. Debra Toporowski said she doesn’t disagree with some aspects of the motion, but wants more input from the community as part of the decision-making process.
“There’s been a lot of assumptions in social media on [how] we’ll vote on this issue,” she said.
“I find some parts of the motion confusing and I have a lot of questions I want answered. I would want a discussion with the public on this.”
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie also said she appreciates Justice’s intent, but she doesn’t like to see the community divided, so she will vote against the motion and hopes everyone will participate in the review of the OCP.
Coun. Tek Manhas, who expressed misgivings with the motion from the beginning, thanked everyone in attendance for their input at the meeting.
“You are the people who keep our economy going and I hope to see you here again,” Manhas said.
“I encourage everyone to keep an open mind on this issue. We have to bring people together when making these decisions.”
Mayor Al Siebring said he appreciates Justice’s intention to deal with urban sprawl, but the motion is probably not the best route.
“There is uncertainty and lack of clarity with this motion, and that can have unintended consequences,” Siebring said.
“I think the only winners if this motion passes would be the lawyers. I also have concerns that if we begin restricting land available for development, it would make the remaining lands more expensive.”
The motion failed, with only Justice and Douglas voting for it.