In a Netflix-worthy drama, the Nov. 16 North Cowichan council meeting featured some heartfelt and anguished speeches – from the councilors, not the public. During the four-hour meeting, the council acted on some major issues such as approving the parks and trails master plan, and touched on others from cradle to grave, so to speak: childhood poverty to increased cemetery rates.
But the climax was the exchange on a recent development issue – increased housing density on Donnay Drive – that has inflamed the Maple Bay neighbours (see previous story). All that was left was a vote to adopt, and the momentum seemed to favour approval. At the last meeting, Mayor Jon Lefebure cast the deciding vote to pass third reading of the bylaw changing the density.
But in a dramatic change of heart, Lefebure delivered a soliloquy, a revelation on how his role as a politician has separated him from citizens and their attitudes. After he and other councilors finished commenting on their rationales, the plan was defeated (Maguire, Douglas, Marsh and Lefebure against; Siebring, Behnsen and Walker for). The move brings the development back to second reading again, triggering more planning input and another public hearing.
This offers a chance to look at all the angles on the polygon (Lefebure preferred that name to the “tongue”), a piece of the urban containment boundary that juts into rural land.
After the vote, the audience (largely of Maple Bay residents) applauded, a sound not often heard in the chambers.
After witnessing the political upheaval that made compelling theatre in the U.S. last week, it is reassuring to see our local government make measured and thoughtful decisions. Certainly not everyone will be happy. Increased density may still occur on the property. But the process was a step closer to understanding the community’s identity.
Lefebure said after a discussion with staff about delegations:
“I realized that after 14 years around this table I’m very much ensconced as a councillor and then mayor and have at times forgotten what it’s like to be a member of the public. When reviewing all the information we had after the public hearings, I started over and tried to put myself in the shoes of a member of the public and I reread the OCP. I found reading it through those eyes, that the OCP – and this is only my opinion – creates a real expectation amongst the public…There are a number of mentions in the OCP how communities have their own distinct character and history and their own views on how best to manage their growth and economic development. We go on to say that for the two per cent of lands that are in the Urban Containment Boundary but are not fully serviced, a local area plan or comprehensive development plan is necessary to be completed to confirm as well as to refine densities.
I am leery of creating a situation wherein the public loses its trust in local government because they have read the OCP and felt they did not get their due day. I am leery of moving forward on the current proposal without having taken the time to provide a planning process for the polygon of land that has been called the tongue, inelegantly. What I would urge council to do is to take additional time to provide a planning exercise.
It’s still my hope that the community would see there is merit in this development, he said. “But it would be after a process that prevented the alienation of our citizens from our current process. I realize that has an impact on the landowners. But they will still have their land, and they may still have an opportunity to apply for greater density.”
Coun. Maeve Maguire said she’s often reflected on a comment that what people need from their government is “trust in the process and accessibility.” As she said, “We have work to do on this.”
“This is a seminal moment for North Cowichan,” said Coun. Kate Marsh, adding that community identity has been haunting her since the last meeting. “Who do we want to be? The wisdom in finding that answer ahead of making amendments to present density goes without saying.”
Coun. Rob Douglas agreed that making a decision before completing the process doesn’t make sense, adding he had concerns about how council is perceived by the community. “Imagine if we could go back in time to do some of these decisions over again. I’m sure we would have handled The Cliffs much differently. I don’t want us to be in a similar situation 10 or 20 years from now and say ‘man, we shouldn’t have approved that Donnay development because that was the domino.”
Coun. Al Siebring wondered about the business impression made by the turnaround. “What image are we creating when we have an OCP, staff comes to us and says (the development) fits? We get some public pressure and we say we’re going to change the rules. What does that do to our image in the development community?”
Coun. Joyce Behnsen said she supported the development plan, while Coun. Tom Walker said he found it difficult to vote against the plan because the municipality had done “yeoman’s job of protecting a rural lifestyle.”