North Cowichan Councillor Rob Douglas. (File photo)

North Cowichan Councillor Rob Douglas. (File photo)

Guest column: Scale of development in Bell McKinnon area being questioned

Recent analysis from planning staff shows a new town of more than 20,000 people

By Rob Douglas

A letter to the Citizen attacks a North Cowichan councillor for asking planning staff to assess the impacts of the proposed Bell McKinnon development around the new hospital on existing town centres such as Chemainus and Duncan.

Note the author of the letter has property near the hospital site, currently listed for $7.8 million.

In 2018 North Cowichan created the Bell McKinnon Local Area Plan, providing a blueprint for development on the largely rural lands between the Cowichan Commons and new hospital

But there are major flaws with this plan.

The scale of the proposed development was only recently brought to light. The original idea was to construct new businesses, housing and speciality medical services to support and complement the new hospital. However, recent analysis from North Cowichan planning staff shows we would actually be building a new town of more than 20,000 people.

This plan is being advanced with no formal analyses or understanding of what effect development of this scale will have on other parts of our community. A recent letter from the Chemainus Business Improvement Association expressed deep concern for the potential impact of the proposed development on their revitalization dreams, a potential that has never been considered.

The plan was developed as a neighbourhood plan, without consideration of the community as a whole and without consultation with the broader public.

However, we now have a clear picture of what the people of North Cowichan think.

As part of the update to our Official Community Plan, the municipality surveyed residents for their input on future growth scenarios. By far most respondents preferred scenarios that focus development in existing growth centres and protect natural and rural lands, with scaled back development in the Bell McKinnon corridor.

Based on this public input, North Cowichan planning staff presented an option to designate the lands surrounding the new hospital as a Health Village that would allow compact, mixed-use development with housing for 2,400 people — a still significant development the size of Crofton — while protecting significant greenspace, including the Somenos watershed.

This scaled back option would have zero impact on Island Health’s decision to build the new hospital, which is moving ahead regardless, and would likely better support development of health and wellness specialty services and businesses

My council colleague is right to ask for the opinion of our planning staff. The proposed motion tries to right a wrong in the way we have approached this development decision by asking a critical question that has not, until now, been asked: what are the impacts of creating a new town four times the size of Duncan on the commercial life of our established communities?

If North Cowichan is serious about revitalizing our existing town centres and preserving rural and natural lands, then it’s critical that we get a handle on the long-term implications of opening up the Bell McKinnon corridor to sprawling, high-density density development that will drastically change the character of the Cowichan Valley forever.

Rob Douglas is a councillor for the Municipality of North Cowichan.