Dubbed a “polygon planning exercise” which sounds more like remedial math homework than a public meeting, North Cowichan’s informal public consultation drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 160 people to the Maple Bay Elementary gym Monday evening. And it wasn’t as sedate as it might sound, due to an angry outburst early in the proceeding. They came to offer their opinions on where to draw the line – literally – between high and low density indicated by the urban containment boundary (UCB). At issue is proposed development on the UCB frontier, a jog on the map called the “polygon,” zoned Residential Rural. The disputed area includes about 20 large properties as well as the Quamichan Inn (zoned differently as Commercial Rural Hospitality).
The trigger for this new round of the urban-versus- rural debate, was a 2016 proposal for a Donnay Drive property just down the street from the school, a project that was to feature 38 homes on 29 subdivided lots. Councillors were on the verge of approving the project, but decided to take a second look after strong opposition from the newly-formed Quamichan Lake Neighbourhood Association (QLNA).
Mayor Jon Lefebure said an overall zoning by-law review is a priority this year on “a relatively ancient” bylaw from the 1980s. “Staff have been trying to work on modern themes with an old law,” he said. “We need to make changes rather than deal with each property.”
Marilyn Palmer of the Quamichan Lake group, said their priorities are protecting the scenic and heritage corridor of Maple Bay Road and the health of the Quamichan Lake watershed. They question the capacity of the watershed to support more development. Palmer said the choice was a “uniform blanket of closely-packed houses” or working together to develop carefully.
The “world café” format for public meetings, in which everyone comments quietly in small groups, is a way to keep a lid on the loudest voices. Their assignment was to answer questions about favourite attributes of the polygon area, the preferred location of the UCB, and what kind of land use is best. “We’re not usually asked how we feel,” said one incredulous participant. The handouts reminded people that urban growth areas are only eight per cent of the North Cowichan area.
But this wouldn’t be the Cowichan Valley if everyone at the meeting agreed. Former North Cowichan councilor and area resident John Koury, before the discussion started, asked the mayor why he was reopening the Official Community Plan (OCP) so soon after all the effort put into the 2011 version, suggesting former chief administrative officer Dave Devana had left his job because of the issue (no comments have been made on Devana’s February departure). Later in an interview, Koury (who ran for mayor in 2014) said he felt “victimized” since he was banned from the QLNA Facebook page for posting planning documents. He argued development charges from new construction keep taxes low for the rest of the homeowners while projects are creating jobs. “I support modern development that fixes old problems. We have to grow,” he said. “I’m not a zealot.” He suggested agricultural run-off and old septic fields are more likely than higher density to be harming Quamichan Lake.
Maps of the Maple Bay area show a conflicting reality, with some high density subdivisions around the polygon, which didn’t exist in the 2002 OCP. Planning was started on North Cowichan’s new OCP in 2008, and when passed in 2011, the OCP had moved the boundaries of its designated growth centres to include already dense areas along Maple Bay Road.
Although this area isn’t growing quickly, once again, it seems the shelf-life of an OCP is about six years, and the front line of advancing development may be pushed back.