Concerns over slow progress lead to questions about campaign donations from developers.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Saanich resident Merie Beauchamp and her husband bought a large lot overrun with invasive species. It had subdivision potential but was also subject to the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw. Under the EDPA, they would be required to work with Saanich planners and biologists, should they want to subdivide, in order to minimize the impact to the endangered Garry oak ecosystem.
Both Beauchamps had biological backgrounds and were curious about what lay under the brambles and daphne. Said Merie: “We removed the invasives and the land came back to life. The native wildflowers began to reappear, the Garry oaks suppressed under the invasives started to take off, the butterflies, birds and other wildlife returned and we realized that we could help restore the natural diversity of this piece of land.”
Saanich resident Merie Beauchamp
The couple decided that they had an opportunity to manage this restored area, which lies adjacent to a protected area. Conventional thinking would describe them as having cost society in foregone development values. “True cost accounting,” however, would value their actions in terms of averting the rising costs of the biodiversity and climate change emergencies. Beauchamp wants people to get excited about true cost accounting and to educate people about the harm of the business-as-usual approach, but it is a hard thing to do with a council that is mostly stuck in an old paradigm.
In May, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report that gave humanity a dire prognosis. A million species are now threatened with extinction, and our own species may follow if we don’t do something about the threats.
In the District of Saanich, over 90 of those species are at risk along with the ecosystems that support them. As one of the most affluent, well-educated, and still biologically-rich urban/rural districts in Canada, Saanich could be playing a leading role in reversing this trend. However, this region has lost ground—literally and figuratively. Garry oak meadows have been blasted into oblivion for everything from swimming pools to subdivisions ever since Saanich scrapped its progressive Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA)—a bylaw and planning tool that had, since 2012, a proven record of guiding development away from, and around, endangered ecosystems.
A byelection in late 2017 had resulted in a pro-development majority on council, which moved quickly to rescind the EDPA—though a replacement was promised. A battle for sustainability was waged in the suburbs, with lawyered-up landowners and developers on one side, and Saanich residents who supported the bylaw on the other.
Since then, the battle has continued with divisions growing deeper. And the casualties of the lack of regulation are evident all over Saanich—endangered ecosystems wiped off their last remaining spots on Earth: at Mount Douglas Cross Road, Rainbow Road, Ten Mile Point, Gordon Head Road, Milner Road, Holland Avenue. Until journalist Wolf Depner was moved from the Saanich News to a new beat in Oak Bay, you could read regularly about yet another endangered meadow getting ploughed under by a bulldozer.
The public discourse has only grown more heated. The College of Applied Biology permanently rescinded the membership of Ted Lea, a key player in the opposition to the EDPA, for violation of the college’s code of ethics stemming from his role in the matter. Councillor Nathalie Chambers urged her fellow council members to reinstate the EDPA given its removal was, in part, based on faulty reports from the biologist—or at least place a moratorium on Garry oak removals. (She failed.) University of Victoria faculty and students have weighed in on the science. Citizen’s groups, like the Falaise Community Association, have gathered people at a Tree Love Town Hall this spring “because of a growing concern for the protection of the residual Garry oak ecosystems under threat.” Citizen watchdogs, like Katherine Whitworth, are tracking what appears to be the increasing control of council by developers through electoral donations to councillors— and Chambers is calling for a ban on such donations.
A perusal of the political donors to councillor campaigns reads like a who’s who of the local development industry, studded with family names like Jawl, Miller (Abstract Developments), Mann, Vanderkerkhove, Geric, and Knappet. Though donations from corporations are prohibited, and individual donations capped at $1200/year ($2400 in an election year), there’s nothing to stop multiple family members and a company’s staff from donating (this has also been noticed in other municipalities).
The industry benefits when it controls the land-use planning process and has every incentive to populate council with people who share their views. That is not news. What is news is that according to the authors of the UN’s IPBES report, the key driver of extinctions worldwide is changes in land use. It also notes the trend is reversible. “Nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably.” The authors stress the necessity of transforming governance and accountability, so that the full costs of not conserving or restoring natural systems and of not using land sustainably are assessed. Accountability also entails the rigorous uncoupling of politics from land use change and its biggest driver, the development industry.
Not surprisingly, the conflict in Saanich is exacerbated by highly confusing narratives being put forward by pro-development councillors in which citizens are told that they must choose: housing versus nature; public versus private land stewardship; farming versus conservation; restoration versus conservation; wetlands over Garry oak; emissions reduction over carbon sink expansion. Claiming that one action over another is prudent and efficient is far easier to sell politically—especially if it retains the status quo.
From where the researchers of our climate and biodiversity crisis sit, however, choice is a luxury that the world doesn’t have. If we are going to avert this emergency, then we actually have to transform our thinking and figure out a way to integrate all these components of the crisis, now.
Dr Eric Higgs
As Dr Eric Higgs of the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies puts it, “Every effort matters. We have to stem the loss and restore. For example, if we are at roughly five percent remnant Garry oak habitat presently, what would it take to get to six percent or 10 or 20 percent? What could happen if citizens were encouraged to take action in their front and backyards, new developments had stringent offset requirements, old trees were cherished, and Saanich really took seriously the need for nature-based solutions?”
BEAUCHAMP WAS AGAINST SCRAPPING THE EDPA, and says the impacts of its loss have been immediate and unnecessary. The move has also devalued and demoralized other efforts for conservation and restoration on private land. She cites as an example, the controversial 4355 Gordon Head Road property where an endangered ecosystem that had previously been protected under the EDPA (through restricting building to an already existing building footprint) was destroyed for a swimming pool by moving the development closer to the cliff to take advantage of ocean views. “Why, when an alternative existed, would we allow an endangered ecosystem to be destroyed for someone’s swimming pool? The cost is borne by the next generation.”
The scrapping of Saanich’s EDPA bylaw allowed this property, which includes an endangered Garry oak ecosystem, to be redeveloped.
In the Milner Road development, four city lots of Garry oak woodland were razed with the lifting of the EDPA. Lauraine Derman, former Councillor Vic Derman’s widow, wrote to Saanich, stating, “At present, we see the ‘Sustainable’ Saanich moniker being abused and ridiculed as we witness some developers flaunting regulations and racing to destroy unique, ecological sensitive areas previously under EDPA protection. A case in point (among others)…is the well-publicized Milner/Leveret incident.”
Against this backdrop of ecological destruction, many citizens wanted to see some sort of replacement for the rescinded EDPA—and quickly. Saanich staff had been working to create the “Natural Saanich” Environmental Policy Framework—which would include polices and regulations related to addressing climate change, biodiversity and stewardship—and envisioned the Framework being completed by 2022. But they also suggested some possible interim measures to address gaps left by the loss of the EDPA. These potentially included an enhanced tree bylaw (protecting other at-risk species), an enhanced fill bylaw (stopping wetland infill), and an adjusted development application. These were considered by staff as “low-hanging fruit as they are easily achievable and relatively effective,” according to meeting minutes.
But the Framework, particularly its interim regulatory measures, was questioned by some councillors, including the Chair of Saanich’s Environmental and Natural Areas Advisory Committee, Rebecca Mersereau. Minutes of a June 2019 meeting show she questioned the effectiveness of regulatory measures. In this, her views were at odds with the committee she chaired.
Saanich Councillor Rebecca Mersereau
Mersereau argued in a July Facebook post that “developing and administering regulations also consumes resources and limits our ability to use other strategies to achieve the same goals, or other environmental goals we consider important. As much as it would be nice, resources are not available in an unlimited supply to help us achieve our environmental goals. If we were more cognizant of all these challenges, and if biodiversity conservation is truly a priority in Saanich, I believe we would have long ago invested more resources into protecting and even enhancing biodiversity in our extensive protected parks network.”
Beauchamp has disagreed on development-related issues with other members of Saanich council, but nowhere has the narrative been more confusing for her than with Mersereau, who has degrees in biology, education and water resource management; was mentored by former Councillor Vic Derman; and once supported the EDPA.
Beauchamp now draws a clear relationship between councillors’ decisions and their financial backers, and believes that rules around conflict of interest and disclosure must be tightened to ensure land- use decisions serve wider interests. She cites four donors from the development industry to Mersereau’s campaign, and adds “politics shouldn’t be mixed with science.”
Dr Higgs has also responded to Mersereau on the interim regulatory measures question: “We need regulatory capacity to limit negative actions, and reward virtuous ones. This is why I support very strongly the kind of integrated package of initiatives comprising the Natural Saanich project. Stripping out the potential for discouraging or stopping heedless actions on private lands, or focusing only on remaining jewels [parks] that make up such a tiny fraction of historical habitat, will result in a future Saanich that is like every other municipality that failed to address issues sooner.”
Higgs points to the March 1, 2019 United Nations General Assembly 2021-2030 declaration of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and suggests, “It would be unfortunate and ironic if Saanich were now to turn its back on the power and promise of hundreds of projects on public and private lands. Yes, environmental conditions are changing—a fact I know too well from my own research on novel ecosystems—but this is hardly an argument for letting the perfect stand in the way of good outcomes, especially those that support innovative approaches to biodiversity conservation and restoration. Every remnant patch of biodiversity that can be conserved or restored makes a difference to climate adaptation and flourishing ecosystems, whether natural, novel, or hybrid.”
At the heart of Higgs’ analysis is the fact that 75 percent of the world’s land base has now been “significantly altered by human actions” and an international consensus of biologists advocate Nature Needs Half—a goal already in the CRD Regional Parks Strategic Plan. There is no research that comes to the conclusion that we will survive the political expediency of scrapping regulations on private land use for protecting endangered ecosystems. Landscape ecologist Jan Kirkby, who worked on Saanich’s original Sensitive Ecosystems Inventory mapping, notes “with strong, forward-thinking leadership and public education, landowners and land managers can embrace these conservation-based planning tools as they have in many other jurisdictions. EDPAs provide guidance and opportunities to enhance both natural and property values of the land. There are also tools like the Natural Area Protection Tax Exemption Program (NAPTEP) for conserving special features and sensitive ecosystems on private land.”
Local governments are indeed free to change zoning to achieve conservation goals without compensation. But that is rarely done and only as a last resort. Kirkby emphasizes “most developers and property owners labour under a critical misconception, that there is such a thing as ‘development rights’ in Canada, that people ought to be able to do whatever they want on their land, and no local government has or should have the right to restrict development. These beliefs and views originate in the US and are supported by their constitution; however, Canada’s constitution supports the collective over the individual.”
TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE DEMISE OF THE EDPA. And now some fear that Saanich council will further delay measures that would hopefully fill the gaps left by its loss. Mersereau, however, assured Focus in an email: “Council has approved an expedited timeline for the development of the EPF, so I’m hopeful that by mid 2020 we’ll all have a better sense of at least the scope of it.”
Yet even the original process was to take until 2022, so any further delays are worrisome to those witnessing ecosystem destruction as the development boom continues.
For now, a technical group to advise the process has been approved. But no “interim measures” (as the staff report advocated) to protect endangered ecosystems are likely in the near future, says Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who has repeatedly asked for them to deal with the biodiversity emergency.
Saanich Councillor Natalie Chambers
She is also advocating tighter accountability of councillors. Under the Community Charter, council members have to declare their own personal investments and may not vote or exercise influence over them. Chambers suggests, “They should also have to recuse themselves when voting on development issues when they receive developers’ donations.” She suggests accountability might have prevented some other recent moves that were developer-friendly: a proposed new bylaw raising development cost charges (DCC) was delayed, denying Saanich taxpayers $2 million; Local Area Plans were halted in favour of fast-tracking housing; and Abstract Developments, which has eight downstream applications, was granted special privileges on the Mayor’s Standing Committee on Housing Affordability, having access where Chambers, for example, has none.
Chambers’ concern over the development industry’s “undue influence” has led her to propose a resolution for the Union of BC Municipalities to eliminate developer donations.
Councillor Mersereau did not address Focus’ questions regarding Higgs’ challenge of her ecological rationale or Chamber’s comments of undue influence, but referred us to her July Facebook post which asserts: “Yup —that’s right! We’re in a process to discuss a process…If we have a good process set up to objectively evaluate how effective each option will be at helping us achieve our goals—whether they are voluntary, financial, or regulatory options (which the EDPA is one example of)—I can support the options that emerge at the top, regardless of what form they take.”
Higgs responds, “We should not be caught in the midst of spats that result in inaction, but leading with the framework, policies, legislative action, and public programs that result in the very kind of Saanich that people will value in the future.”
What do we need to get there? Beauchamp suggests “a conflict of interest bylaw for municipal donations might be a good start. Then let’s get Natural Saanich back on track.”
Briony Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side and, most recently, Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa'xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).