It’s time that somebody blew the whistle on the city’s Official Community Plan review process.
I attended the February 10 open house on this long and drawn out process. I came home with 80 pages of handouts. And I’m still confused and upset.
The handouts are not a coherent draft Official Community Plan for public review. Rather, they are a disjointed collection of random ideas. At best, they selectively present what the city wants us to hear on various topics. At worst, they do not reflect what the public has been telling the city to date at meetings and they turn their back on public demands for greater certainty, accountability and protection of natural areas in the city.
Furthermore, the stated March 3 deadline for comments comes at the worst possible time. With local attention firmly fixed on the Olympics, Rendezvous and preparing for spring break, who has the time to plow through a stack of difficult to understand handouts?
The city either completely misjudged the public’s other commitments at this time of year, or would just as soon have the current process slip by quietly below the public radar. If they are serious about wanting feedback, the deadline should be extended by at least a month.
Even a quick glance at the handouts is cause for concern. Here are a few highlights:
Less protection for natural areas
Even though the headlines of the handouts proudly proclaim that environmental protection will be improved, the fine print shows the opposite.
The existing Official Community Plan states, “significant corridors and important water bodies and land areas shall be protected from incompatible development.”
The new plan carries no such clause. Rather, it states, “Proposed development or activities that may impact the ecology of these areas shall be examined through comprehensive planning processes.”
This change provides less protection for environmental areas, not more. It provides no technical protection standards of any kind. In fact, it opens up sensitive areas for new development. The only requirement is that the city must “examine” the development impacts first. If the record of the past council is any indication, we all know where this will lead.
Less protection for watershed quality
Standards for protecting water quality in the city’s watershed are also gone.
The existing plan contains a rigorous requirement to conduct a “detailed hydrological and hydrogeological assessment of the McLean Lake watershed prior to any further gravel extraction.” This was the requirement that caused the city to lose its court case on allowing a gravel quarry to go ahead on the Sleeping Giant Hill. The court concluded that the Official Community Plan requirement had not been met and that the city had acted illegally in approving the application.
It is no surprise, then, that the city now wants to do away with this rigorous standard. It wants to replace it with an ambiguous need to conduct “appropriate environmental studies and management plans” and examine “watershed impacts and proposed mitigations.” The only requirement is that these studies must be done in manner “deemed acceptable by council.”
The net result, once again, is that council can determine for itself what it wants to do without any accountability to specific technical standards or restrictions.
What comfort can the public take that this will result in real watershed protection?
More heavy industry in more areas of the city
The city also wants to do away with the distinction between service industrial uses and heavy industrial uses in the Official Community Plan.
Service industrial includes clean and contained activities such as warehousing and storage. Heavy industrial includes noisy and polluting large-scale activities such forestry mills, asphalt plants and mineral processing plants. The city wants to combine both uses in a single industrial Official Community Plan designation.
With this change, it would appear that every service industrial lot in the city will now be up for grabs for conversion to heavy industrial use, with only a simple zoning change required. And unless proven otherwise, the zoning change will be supported by the city and the Official Community Plan.
In other words, people living in Porter Creek (MacDonald), Crestview (Kulan), Takhini (Marwell), and Lo-Bird-Copper Ridge (McLean Lake) should be aware that the city is now prepared to support new heavy industrial development in the service areas close to their neighbourhoods. If this happens the inevitable result will be greater noise, industrial traffic and air pollution throughout many areas of the city.
Surely, this was not the intent of city planners when the original service industrial areas were laid out.
Heavy industry does not belong in service industrial areas. The two uses have radically different land-use needs and radically different impacts on their surroundings. Heavy industry belongs in its own specific areas far away from other land uses. There are many reasons why just about every Official Community Plan in the country separates heavy and service industrial designations. Whitehorse should not be any different.
Heavy industrial activity at McLean Lake
Perhaps the most troubling recommendation is the city’s explicit support for a heavy industrial development close to McLean Lake. This is despite the fact that the proposed concrete batch plant site is bordered on three sides by unique environmentally sensitive areas and a future McLean Lake park. It is also close to two identified future residential areas.
The proposed industrial designation at McLean Lake is not only totally incompatible with the surrounding area, the city’s handout is also disturbingly misleading when it states that the idea “came from stakeholder input.”
The public record on this issue speaks for itself. Since it first came up in 1994, the idea of a quarry and batch plant at McLean Lake has been opposed by the public every step of the way. This issue has packed city hall on several occasions, each time marked by overwhelming public opposition to the idea. Full-page ads with more than 200 signatures have appeared in both local papers urging council to not support industrial development there. A city-wide petition signed by over 2,500 Whitehorse residents called for the city to hold a referendum to protect the McLean Lake area, including the industrial site in question. Yet the city continues to ignore this public record.
About the only people who have spoken publicly in favour of this industrial development are the proponent himself and the consultant hired by the proponent. And, of course, the city councilors who voted illegally to support this idea also spoke in favour of it. But that was before their decision was overturned by the courts. It is these same councillors who now want to change the rules so the development can go ahead after all, despite clear public opposition and their prior legal problems.
So where is council’s accountability? Based on their actions, they seem to be more interested in protecting their own political rear ends and meeting the proponent’s needs, rather than respecting the public’s stated interests.
To make the industrial development idea at McLean Lake even more unbelievable, the handout also claims that some of these industrial areas will “revert back to residential over time.”
How would this be possible? The proposed McLean Lake industrial site is on fee simple land. Once it is zoned heavy industrial, how will this ever revert to residential unless the proponent is in total agreement and fully compensated for the change? Or is the city hereby suggesting that zoning designations are no longer secure for private industrial lots in Whitehorse, and from now on their zoning can be changed to residential against their owner’s will? Clearly this would be a major concern for industrial lot owners throughout the city.
These above issues are only a few of the concerns raised by the city’s OCP handouts. Many more topics are covered. Eighty pages in all, and they cover future development areas, highways, Porter Creek expansion, McIntyre Creek, quarries and the list goes on.
Every single one of these topics needs careful technical analysis and meaningful public discussion. This can’t be done in a rush.
The people of Whitehorse deserve an Official Community Plan process that gives citizens the time they need to fully consider the current ideas and proposals.
The people of Whitehorse also deserve nothing less than a city administration and council that listens respectfully to public concerns, and makes decisions that are accountable to the public and consistent with what the public is telling them.