The Regional Growth Strategy is officially back in play.
After a summer spent battling forest fires, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District hosted an elected officials forum in Pemberton Thursday that allowed politicians from throughout the corridor to suss out their differences over the controversial planning strategy.
The assembled politicos didn't come to an agreement on the strategy but they nevertheless had an opportunity to vocalize their issues with the strategy, which aims to focus development into compact, sustainable communities.
Adoption of the strategy hit a wall last October after Squamish council rejected it, just prior to November's municipal elections. Some councillors felt at the time that the strategy could negatively impact development in Squamish and that not enough consultation had been done with the community.
On Thursday, however, the District of Squamish came to the forum with a whole different set of concerns and some ideas for how to get around them.
Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner attended the forum along with all but one member of his council. He said Squamish isn't trying to "fine-tune" the document but nevertheless has concerns about how it could impact decision-making by local governments.
"We think this document goes too far in taking away the decision-making authority, the autonomy of municipal governments to make land use decisions within our municipal boundaries," he said. "Even if it's within the scope of the legislation, we don't think it's the right thing for any municipality, and certainly not the right thing for any corridor."
Gardner brought forth two proposals for fixing the logjam on the Regional Growth Strategy. First, changing terminology in the strategy to make it less mandatory. Second, change the mapping of the strategy to make it less descriptive within municipal boundaries.
Also of concern to the District of Squamish is an amending formula that would require the unanimous approval of all member municipalities and the regional district, as well as all adjacent regional districts, where major amendments are concerned.
The definition of a major amendment is vague but politicians at the forum felt it could apply to projects such as Quest University, the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish resort or even the GEMS international private school being planned for Pemberton's Ravens Crest property.
If a signatory to the strategy didn't agree with major amendments that could be required to move those projects forward, the whole district would then have to go into a dispute resolution process that could end up in front of an arbitrator, Gardner said. Thus there's a concern that one municipality could have a kind of veto over the land use decisions of another.
"If there is one party to the contract (that doesn't) agree to the amendment... we have to go to a dispute resolution process," he said. "If we don't agree, it goes to arbitration, then some arbitrator makes a decision. Frankly we don't think that's the way to make land use decisions."
The Village of Pemberton has joined Squamish in its concerns about the amendment formula. Mayor Jordan Sturdy said Pemberton council shares Squamish's concerns about municipal autonomy.
"At the Agreement-in-Principle stage, I was confident that we had an ability to make decisions within our own municipalities," he said. "Squamish council has raised the concern or raised this issue that we will not have a degree of autonomy in our Official Community Plans as I assumed that we had."
Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed, a vigorous supporter of the document, said the Squamish-Lillooet strategy could "raise the bar" as far as such plans go and that member municipalities ought to sign on to the strategy because "we're all in this together."
"I'm not advocating that we go to one municipality for the region," he said. "The principle is the shared responsibility, so Whistler and Pemberton and Lillooet have all agreed to this same level of oversight. I think it's important for us to have Squamish and Thompson-Nicola (regional district) and Vancouver look at what we're doing. I welcome that oversight."
Melamed went on to say that member municipalities, if the strategy is ever adopted, wouldn't speak out on every issue.
"I would only think of some extreme example that would cause us, in Whistler's case, to speak against the wishes of the local community," he said. "It would have to be huge."
He said this despite the fact that he's repeatedly spoken out against the proposed GEMS international private school. The proposal has received strong support from Pemberton council as well as B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission.
The officials ultimately agreed to take Squamish's proposals back to their respective councils, make comments on them and then come back to the discussion table in October with their ideas on how to move forward.
The Regional Growth Strategy currently sits at second reading at the regional district level and requires unanimous support of all municipalities and electoral areas in order to pass.