McLean Lake consultations better than a vote, say city planners

In deciding whether a gravel quarry or a park is established along the edges of McLean Lake, Whitehorse will be better served by politicians than by the people, say city planners. Elected councillors are better at weighing...

In deciding whether a gravel quarry or a park is established along the edges of McLean Lake, Whitehorse will be better served by politicians than by the people, say city planners.

Elected councillors are better at weighing the impact on the community, whereas a public referendum process gives each citizen an equal vote, regardless of how heavily the outcome weighs upon them, said Whitehorse senior planner Mike Ellis.

In June, a 2,654-signature petition to hold a referendum to establish a park around McLean Lake was filed by Marianne Darragh with the backing of the McLean Lake Residents Association, the Friends of McLean Lake Society and the Yukon Conservation Society.

Under the municipal act, any petition that gathers more than 2,000 signatures must proceed to referendum.

The city is wary of amending zoning by referendum because it is usually handled through a bureaucratic schedule of public meetings and reports.

So the city challenged the petition in court soon after it was submitted, and publicly proclaimed it “invalid.”
“We don’t believe that the petition referendum process should be able to circumvent due process as laid out in the Official Community Plan,” said city manager Dennis Shewfelt.

The ability to call a referendum is included in the books for a reason, but the city doesn’t like it, said Darragh.
“They’ve challenged the right of the people to have people call for a referendum by the petition process outlined in the municipal act,” said Darragh.

A judge ruled in Darragh’s favour in the first court tussle. And he ordered the city to pay Darragh’s legal fees — on top of the $38,000 in legal fees it had already run up on its own.

The city appealed the decision. That court hearing is scheduled for May 25.

In the meantime, city planners are examining zoning at the McLean Lake watershed as part of a full review of the city’s Official Community Plan.

In November, Skookum Asphalt was approved to establish a 26-hectare quarry in the McLean Lake watershed.
“It made sense” that McLean Lake would be reopened as a gravel quarry, rather than “opening up a new one in an area that hasn’t been industrial or is closer to a large neighbourhood,” said Mike Gau, manager of planning and development services.
“As part of lots of other steps in this process, we’re going to be talking to … quarry and gravel extraction operations, and see what they have to say,” said Ellis.
“While we hear from one neighbourhood that they don’t want a gravel quarry, we also hear from economic development that we do need gravel quarries,” said Gau.

The city is “not adverse” to setting up a park through the public consultation amendment process, said Shewfelt.
“They aren’t legally bound to listen to anyone in the public consultation — I’d be very skeptical of how much they would accommodate (the park) in the official community plan,” said Darragh. 

Even if a park is approved, Darragh intends to continue with the court case in order to uphold the referendum process.
“Otherwise, the next time thousands of people have a problem with a decision the city made, it will just go to court anyway,” she said.
“If the courts decide that a referendum process should proceed, then we would hold a referendum,” said Shewfelt.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com

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