The years-long row over the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) is finally coming to an end.
On June 8 an independent arbitrator evaluated four separate options for adopting the controversial planning document and ultimately decided that the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) offered the most persuasive interpretation of a strategy that aims to limit development to compact, walkable communities.
The arbitrator, S. Glenn Sigurdson, considered individual options provided by the SLRD and three of its member municipalities: the District of Squamish, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the Village of Pemberton.
The decision ultimately came down to the difference between a few words. Each of the options provided to the arbitrator concerned interpretations of Section 1.1 of the strategy, which lays out strategic planning directions for all of its communities.
It initially stated that the RGS "will require Official Community Plans" to establish policies consistent with the Regional Planning Settlement Map; direct housing growth into urban areas and master-planned communities; prevent major growth in non-settlement areas; and encourage Smart Growth strategies appropriate to the circumstances.
Sigurdson ruled in favour of the option proffered by the SLRD, which wanted the section to read that "Official Community Plans should" adhere to these strategies. Squamish wanted the section to read "Official Community Plans shall."
Whistler, too, wanted it to read "Official Community Plans shall" but it also recommended that Section 1.1(a) be amended to read that "The Regional Settlement Planning Map shall (will) be used in conjunction" with Official Community Plans to encourage compact development, maintain rural, low-density character of residential areas and protect non-settlement areas.
Sigurdson didn't provide reasons for his decision because the Local Government Act doesn't allow him to.
The decision nevertheless came as welcome news for SLRD Administrator Paul Edgington, as the regional district and its member communities have wrestled with the strategy for seven years.
"It will allow the board to adopt the growth strategy and then there's so much else in the growth strategy that wasn't contested," Edgington said. "It should allow the regional district and member municipalities to start working through some of the vision of the growth strategy and realize their vision."
The row over the strategy began when the District of Squamish decided against adopting it at a 2008 council meeting.
Squamish councillors felt at the time that not enough consultation had been done with the community, but that concern later evolved into worries about autonomy in land use decisions.
It worried specifically about the strategy's amending process. They were concerned that if an OCP amendment or major development were to come before it that wasn't consistent with the RGS, they would have to refer it for unanimous approval to every community in the SLRD as well as every adjacent regional district including Metro Vancouver.
It's the same process for adopting the RGS itself and it would have given what Squamish saw as a "veto" to other communities on land use decisions.
All the options, however, incorporated a suggestion from Squamish that municipalities prepare Regional Context Statements that identify the relationships between their OCPs and the RGS to ensure they remain consistent with its values. Those statements would then be referred to communities within the SLRD for comments.
Regional Context Statements mean that amendments no longer require such unanimous approval, according to Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner.
"There's a referral process but no unanimous consent is required within a municipal boundary," he said.
Asked how he feels about the arbitrator's decision, Gardner said it didn't deal with the "important issue" for Squamish but he's nevertheless happy with the outcome.
"For all parties to agree to the resolution that we proposed is very satisfactory to us," Gardner said. "We're extremely pleased with the outcome."