Probably the worst urban sprawl in the Cowichan Valley can be found under construction within the boundaries of North Cowichan, along the road to Maple Bay. This sprawl is taking place within existing policy, even within what’s known as “urban containment boundaries,” which are anything but.
Such sprawl is the biggest local driver of new emissions at a time when we need to dramatically cut them. Such sprawl is also the costliest type of development to municipalities – the opposite of what’s needed to address the affordable housing crisis.
Last week an attempt was made to have North Cowichan council rein in the approval of even more sprawl. It fell short.
Councillor Justice proposed a stop-gap solution that would support planning staff in limiting sprawl while North Cowichan’s slow-moving OCP process unfolds, giving council the opportunity to formally revise the urban containment boundaries to actually contain something. A new OCP could take up to two years.
His motion (copied below) would direct staff to advise developers that sub-dividing and developing land within the urban containment boundaries that is greenfield or not walkable to services is not in the public interest until such time as the new OCP is finished.
The motion is consistent with the municipality’s current OCP which names reduction of suburban development sprawl and mitigating and adapting to climate change as major policy objectives (although the results have been quite different).
On a planet experiencing a climate emergency, such a motion is in the zone of “the least we can do” – ie. stop making things worse – given that we really need is to be rapidly mobilizing a response on the scale of what our society and economy did during WWII. But that’s not how it was perceived.
Councillor Manhas claimed this made North Cowichan “closed for business,” despite the numerous approvals either already under construction or that can still go forward. Similarly, Mayor Siebring said this motion made things “go out of balance,” even though anyone checking out the recent sprawl in North Cowichan would conclude that things are indeed out of balance in the other direction.
Much was also said about public consultation and whether this motion would “fetter” the OCP process or pre-suppose its outcome, but that's not the case. The OCP process is still the OCP process with its own public consultation and its own votes. Sadly, these process-related objections seem rather like stand ins for a more honest substantive argument that we should just keep approving sprawl as long as possible.
Finally, the decision was postponed when Mayor Siebring prodded CAO Ted Swabey to say that council shouldn’t do anything of substance without a staff report on potential impacts and moved that such a report be done. Councillor Douglas pointed out that Councillor Justice’s proposal has been in the works for seven months already and has been through a legal review, but ultimately Councillors Justice and Douglas were outvoted in favour of waiting for a staff report to be produced for the January meeting.
This sets up the next debate where the staff report will conclude that the motion will indeed have impacts - how could it not if the motion is to mean anything for actually stopping sprawl? There will be objections from those whose immediate plans are inconsistent with the motion. Again, how could there not be if things are going to change?
While controversy in the short term seems inevitable, there's an opportunity for North Cowichan council to forge a longer-term political consensus here. For fiscal conservatives, sprawl costs municipalities more money to build and service than dense, walk-able communities. For affordable housing advocates, the logic is the same. And for those who want a livable world for our kids and grandkids, we have no choice other than to tackle the largest source of emissions in the valley - transportation emissions driven by development decisions that make people drive everywhere.
Change is hard, but we need to start somewhere.
Whereas the current Official Community Plan (OCP) of the Municipality of North Cowichan (North Cowichan) identifies the reduction of suburban development sprawl, the preservation of rural character, smart growth, and mitigating and adapting to climate change as major policy objectives;
And whereas North Cowichan Council has recently acknowledged that we are facing a climate emergency requiring immediate action;
And whereas North Cowichan’s Climate Action and Energy Plan acknowledges the relationship between suburban development sprawl, increased demands for energy, and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and also acknowledges the need to develop compact communities that can adapt to a changing climate;
And whereas North Cowichan is currently reviewing its OCP, which review will include the consideration of: i) stronger policies related to climate change; ii) amendments to the Urban Containment Boundary (UCB) to reduce suburban development sprawl and automobile dependency; and iii) denser development around North Cowichan’s existing commercial cores to create complete and resilient communities;
And whereas the development of lands (Lands) which are: i) greenfield; ii) characteristic of leapfrog development; or iii) are not within reasonable (generally accepted) walking distance from the core services of either Crofton, Chemainus, or the Duncan to Berkey’s Corner area of the South End of North Cowichan (some of which are located within the UCB) would be inconsistent with the above current and possible policies;
And whereas the removal of some of the Lands from within the UCB will be considered as part of the review of the OCP;
And whereas some of the Lands currently within the UCB, in areas such as the Quamichan watershed and similar areas*, are facing development pressure, which will likely increase during the anticipated two year OCP review process;
And whereas it is anticipated that a significant amount of North Cowichan planning staff resources will be required to review development applications in relation to the Lands, which may be removed from within the UCB at a future date as a result of the review of the OCP;
And whereas North Cowichan Council believes it is not prudent to expend North Cowichan planning staff resources to review development applications in relation to the Lands while the review of the OCP is being undertaken;
Therefore be it resolved That Council is of the view that the approval of further growth or change in those areas of North Cowichan represented by the Lands is not in the public interest, but believes that growth or change that fosters walkable, compact, and energy efficient communities, and strengthens existing cores, is in the pubic interest.
And therefore be it further resolved That Council directs North Cowichan planning staff to advise the Approving Officer that Council is of the view that the approval of subdivision of any of the Lands is not in the public interest for the reasons set out above, and request that the Approving Officer reject all such subdivision applications as not being in the public interest.
And therefore be it further resolved That Council believes that it is not a judicious use of North Cowichan planning staff resources to review applications for amendments to the OCP and/or Zoning Bylaw in relation to any of the Lands while the review of the OCP is underway.
And therefore be it further resolved That Council directs North Cowichan planning staff to encourage applicants for amendments to the OCP and/or Zoning Bylaw in relation to any of the Lands to defer consideration of their applications until after North Cowichan has completed its review of the OCP, and that, where the applicants are not agreeable to deferring consideration of their applications until after North Cowichan has completed its review of the OCP, North Cowichan planning staff bring all such applications to Council at the earliest opportunity for consideration by Council and direction as to whether Council wishes to proceed with further steps in relation to the application, including a detailed staff review, or Council wishes to deny the application without further review.
* There are a number of large greenfield sites currently located within the Urban Containment Boundary (UCB) - including in lands surrounding the Maple Bay Corridor and Quamichan Lake, the western boundary of the Crofton growth centre, southern/western boundaries of the Chemainus growth centre, and other undeveloped areas of the South End.