Greenspace protection may be put to vote this summer

This week the city will examine the results of a petition that could trigger a greenspace referendum this summer.

This week the city will examine the results of a petition that could trigger a greenspace referendum this summer.

In November, after fighting greenspace development in Porter Creek for 15 years, Carole Bookless demanded a full-scale referendum on city infill plans.

She had 90 days to gather a 2,000-name petition in support of two questions.

Now more than 2,500 people have supported the initiative, said Bookless, president of the Porter Creek Residents’ Association.

There are two proposed referendum questions.

The first asks the city to amend the Official Community Plan to require all residential subdivisions to have a greenspace plan, passed by area plebiscite.

The second asks that any area designated greenspace, park, park reserve or held under environmental protection in any Official Community Plan keep its designation unless changed by area plebiscite or referendum.

Now, staff will verify the signatures by checking them against the registered voters’ list.

And, if 2,000 of them are legitimate, the city would be required to draft a bylaw in line with the two questions.

City council would give the bylaw first reading, then it would be put to referendum sometime this summer.

Bookless expects some signatures will to be found invalid, but says it’ll still come in well over the 2,000 mark.

“I’d be very surprised if the city found more than 100 signatures invalid,” she added.

Bookless and a team of a dozen canvassers collected signatures door to door and they left petitions with some local businesses.

Bookless says nine out of 10 people the team approached signed the petition.

“We’ve had such strong support because it’s happening to everyone,” added Bookless. “Every subdivision that we’ve gone into, someone had a story about an area — a big area or a small area — that was protected and then the city changed it.”

“Those are nice questions,” said city planning manager Lesley Cabott, “but I don’t know of any jurisdiction that does planning through referendum.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

But some are concerned that if the referendum passes, it could halt residential development in the city completely.

“I’m very, very concerned that will hamstring any future council from the development process,” said mayor Ernie Bourassa.

“The people of Whitehorse elect seven ordinary citizens to ensure that the collective interests of the city are represented in City Hall.

“If we’re not going to allow the city council to make decisions, why bother having a city council at all?”

“A greenspace plan is essential,” said city councillor Doug Graham in a past interview.

He supports the first question, but considers the second unworkable.

“Every piece of property would have to go through area plebiscite and referendum,” he said. “We’ll never be able to develop another lot in the city of Whitehorse.”

If the referendum goes forward it would cost the city $25,000 to 30,000, said Bourassa.

“And I think we have better things to do with our money than spend it on this kind of referendum,” he added.

Bookless began the petition for the referendum in November following two public meetings in which city planners presented a blueprint for infill development in Porter Creek.

These plans required rezoning to permit  residential lots in a popular greenspace.

“We expected some sort of consultation on how the greenspace was to be protected, not developed,” Bookless told council in November when she announced the petition.

“What we got was a slap in the face.”

Plans to develop the greenspace in Porter Creek were ultimately put on hold in December when the city realized that the area in question had also been promised to Yukon College as endowment lands.