Most of the time, municipal politicians follow the advice of senior staff. So whenever an elected official publicly disagrees with a civil servant's recommendation at a public meeting, it has the potential to create some tension.
Such was the case on June 4 in the Metro Vancouver second-floor boardroom. The regional district's chief administrative officer, Johnny Carline, was leading a discussion about a new draft regional growth strategy. It's the successor to the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and it addresses how to enhance sustainability in Metro Vancouver while accommodating a million more residents by 2040.
The regional growth strategy hasn't gotten much publicity in the media, but it has generated enormous interest among municipal politicians, planners, environmentalists, and developers. The proposed shift in governance has some wondering if the regional district is on a path to becoming a megacity.
At the regional planning committee meeting, Carline explained to various mayors and councillors that the values, visions, and goals in the draft plan “resonate” with the public. However, he emphasized that it is necessary to hold a round of “direct conversations” with local city councils to address what he described as “chewy issues”: i.e., when a municipal government's desires for development or rezoning collide with a broader regional interest.
Metro Vancouver staff previously planned to have the draft regional growth strategy approved by July. However, Carline admitted at the committee meeting that this was no longer the case. “Well, we will fall flat on our noses if we try to go that fast,” he conceded.
Carline suggested delaying the approval until November. It looked like a routine matter until Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer started speaking. “I would like to state that Vancouver cannot support this motion and time line as it currently stands,” Reimer declared, surprising many in the room.
She explained that planning for the 2010 Olympics has made it impossible for city staff to respond adequately to the draft regional growth strategy, and she suggested pushing the approval process back to early 2010.
“I do apologize,” Reimer added. “I voted against the Olympics.”
The chair of the committee, Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan, appeared to be taken aback by Reimer's comments. “Is this your planning staff?” he asked.
“It's about a third of our total staff of 10,000 that are in some way engaged in Olympics planning work,” Reimer replied. “And anyone who is left is trying to keep the water on, get the recycling picked up, and do the roadwork.”
The regional growth strategy requires unanimous approval from all 21 Metro Vancouver municipalities. Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie said he was surprised by Vancouver's “rigid” position, noting that the regional time lines weren't “etched in concrete”. Surrey councillor Judy Villeneuve suggested having her city's staff deal directly with Vancouver staff to resolve the impasse. Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini echoed that point, and Coquitlam mayor Richard Stewart said that he, too, was a “bit disappointed”, pointing out that his smaller community is coping with two major provincial projects: the Gateway Program and the Evergreen Line.
Reimer responded that Vancouver is dealing with several large planning issues, including Northeast False Creek, East Fraserlands, height reviews, view-corridor studies, and density bonuses. “When the Olympics happen, we will have to absorb another quarter of a million people every single day onto our road networks, on our water system, our sewage system,” she said. “It's like absorbing Burnaby, basically, every day for 17 days and doing it while the world's media is on us.”
The committee approved the regional staff's proposal for a new timetable, with Reimer casting the only dissenting vote. The full Metro Vancouver board will possibly vote on the same staff recommendation at its meeting on June 26. What this means for the future of the plan is anyone's guess.
In an interview in the coffee shop at Metro Vancouver headquarters, Christina DeMarco told the Straight that the Livable Region Strategic Plan was a “great visionary document” with its objectives of protecting the green zone, building complete communities, achieving a compact metropolitan region, and encouraging transportation choices.
However, DeMarco, Metro Vancouver's regional-development division manager, pointed out that the region hasn't achieved its objective of concentrating employment in the town centres. Between 1990 and 2006, about 18 million square feet of office space was built, DeMarco said. Approximately 40 percent of it went to downtown Vancouver, and 11 percent was in regional town centres. The rest was outside of these areas, mostly in suburban business parks not well served by transit.
DeMarco said that only about eight percent of the work force commutes to business parks by transit, walking, or bicycles. “Compare it to a place like Metrotown—you're getting about 40 percent,” she said. “And then downtown, about 60 percent.” All those cars create transportation gridlock, which undermines the region's sustainability objectives.
The new draft plan proposes giving Metro Vancouver greater powers to prevent municipal governments from promoting development in areas not well served by transit. Whereas the Livable Region Strategic Plan discussed partnerships with municipalities to achieve objectives, the draft regional growth strategy includes language that gives greater clout to Metro Vancouver directors.
Each municipality is required to create a “regional context statement”, which would outline how the official community plan fits in with the regional growth strategy. These statements would establish boundaries for general urban areas, urban centres, industrial areas, and industrial/commercial areas, as well as identify “frequent transit corridor” locations.
These statements would require the approval of 50 percent plus one of the weighted votes on the Metro Vancouver board. DeMarco said that to amend the statement in major areas—such as changing an urban-containment boundary or altering areas designated for conservation and recreation, and agriculture—would require a public hearing and support of two-thirds of the Metro Vancouver board. To make amendments in other areas would require 50 percent plus one of the weighted votes and no public hearing. (Votes are “weighted” on the basis of a municipality's population.)
The board would evaluate regional context statements to ensure that industrial land is preserved for industrial use. “It's sending the signal out, ”˜Hey, there is a regional interest,' ” DeMarco said.
Several municipal governments have produced staff reports objecting to this change in governance. Coquitlam, for example, published a staff report saying it's not feasible to use parcel-based maps to identify the region's natural areas, including in northeast Coquitlam. The City of Richmond stated in a report that it is not interested in giving up autonomy over industrial land to the Metro Vancouver board.
The most detailed criticism came from the City of Burnaby, whose mayor happens to chair the regional planning committee. “Any suggestion that the City should change its policies to narrow opportunities for a diversity of industrial uses, at the expense of employment diversity and efficient and intensive use of its remaining industrial land, is not supportable,” the Burnaby staff report stated.
Vancouver councillor David Cadman worked for the regional government for almost 20 years and conducted public consultation on the Livable Region Strategic Plan, which was approved in 1996. In a phone interview with the Straight, he said his biggest concern about the new draft plan is that it puts parts of the “green zone” at risk. That's because the provincial government changed the legislation to permit a two-thirds majority vote by the Metro Vancouver board to remove land from the green zone—which includes watersheds, farmland, conservation areas, and major parks.
Cadman conceded that agricultural land couldn't be rezoned without the approval of the Agricultural Land Commission. But he noted that prior to the legislative change, land in the region's green zone couldn't be altered without the Metro Vancouver board's unanimous support.
“It puts all agricultural lands under market threat,” Cadman said. “I think that's really problematic.”
He also wonders if the regional government has broader ambitions. “They went from a regional district to calling themselves Metro Vancouver, though that hasn't been recognized legally,” he said. “It's an indication to me that there is a desire to move to a metropolitan form of government.”
Others share some of Cadman's concerns. In a submission to Vancouver city council about the draft plan, former city housing employee Elizabeth Murphy noted that there is an “inherent incentive for municipalities to increase their tax base through development”. And this, she suggested, creates a conflict of interest when it comes to preserving green space.
Murphy told the Straight by phone that she worries about TransLink and Metro Vancouver overriding municipal authority if the draft plan is approved. “In some respects, it's good to have a regional context, but not to essentially lose control to the point where you're not accountable anymore to the electorate,” she said.
A citizens' group, Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, also claimed in submissions to the city and to the regional district that under the draft plan, green zones would be more easily removed from protection.
The group's spokesperson, Ned Jacobs, also raised concerns about TransLink's role in the regional plan. The B.C. government has granted TransLink legal authority to review “major developments” and adoption of amendments to a municipality's official community plan.
“It appears that the Province is using the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy to facilitate TransLink real estate dealings by giving this unelected board authority over land use decisions that could override municipalities,” Jacobs wrote. “Since TransLink and their private development partners would have a financial stake in those decisions, conflicts of interest would be systemic.”
In a phone interview with the Straight, Jacobs said there are inherent problems in TransLink's dual role as a regulator and a land developer. What's worse, he said, is the board of directors is not elected.
In his comments to the committee, Carline acknowledged a great deal of concern about TransLink's authority to review developments for their compatibility with the regional transportation plan. “That went down like a lead balloon with both municipalities and the public,” Carline said. “There was not a hell of a lot of support for that.”
Meanwhile, business interests have offered mixed reviews of the regional plan. The Urban Development Institute, which represents the development industry, praised the regional growth strategy for “allowing high density growth in the Urban Centres and along Frequent Transit Development Corridors”. However, it also noted in its submission that UDI members have been disappointed that most of the region's SkyTrain stations “remain relatively underdeveloped” after more than 20 years of service.
“Hundreds of thousands of additional people could live and work near transit,” UDI executive director Maureen Enser wrote.
She also condemned the call to protect industrial land. “Metro is proposing a type of Industrial Land Reserve that freezes the types of jobs and businesses allowed in industrial zones,” Enser claimed. Port Metro Vancouver, on the other hand, expressed support for protecting the region's supply of industrial land.
In an interview with the Straight at Vancouver City Hall, Reimer said that her city council supports the concept of a regionally regulated industrial-land reserve. But she also said that there are still details to be worked out, such as protecting the city's right to rezone around rapid-transit stations.
However, Reimer added that it's foolish to bring goods into the port, ship them to Chilliwack and Langley for storage in warehouses, and then drive these goods back to retailers in Vancouver. “It's a huge problem,” she said.
Reimer and some others have also raised the spectre of peak oil, which is the point when global petroleum production will go into decline. Some analysts say that after the world surpasses peak oil production, we can expect to see sharply higher transportation, food, and energy costs. In his response to the draft regional growth strategy, Bryn Davidson, executive director of the Dynamic Cities Project, recommended explicitly acknowledging oil depletion “as a key factor” in regional planning between 2010 and 2040.
In addition, Davidson recommended adopting a regional oil-consumption target and updating infrastructure-planning methodologies “to incorporate both current and future demand shifts driven by the combined impacts of peak oil and climate change”. He noted in his submission that Portland, San Francisco, Brisbane, and the Southern California Association of Governments are already responding to peak oil.
Meanwhile, the Livable Region Coalition claimed that the draft regional growth strategy “misses the mark on climate change by varying only marginally” from auto-dependent development. It noted that the British Columbia Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act requires the province to reduce emissions to 33 percent below 2007 levels within the next 11 years.
“Transportation is the single largest source of personal GHG emissions at about 58 percent of average household emissions,” coalition members Stephen Rees and Eric Doherty wrote. “Metro Vancouver's draft growth strategy is largely about the land use and transportation decisions that determine emissions for about half the people in B.C., and falls well short of the decisive actions needed to meet legislated targets.”
The coalition noted that the “twin crisis of global warming and the impending peak of conventional oil production” requires a strong plan that includes a ban on new residential developments in areas not served by transit. The coalition also stated that the Gateway Program contradicts the regional growth strategy's goal of “reducing motor vehicle emissions and vehicle kilometres travelled”.
Metro Vancouver's Carline is an old hand at the planning process. He told the regional planning committee on June 4 that not everyone realizes that the regional growth strategy is just one of a suite of regional plans that also deal with drinking water, solid waste, liquid waste, air quality, housing, parks and greenways, and ecological health. “We need to do a better job of communicating that,” he said. “We still need to do a lot more on how the plans integrate and support each other—and interact with each other.”
As a result of Reimer's vote at the committee meeting, it appears Metro Vancouver might have a lot more time to achieve that objective.