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Squamish’s uncoordinated environment

Need for a specialized staff person ever pressing, says Heintzman



There's a stream flowing down Government Road in Squamish. It's an odd colour brown, and John Buchanan stands pensive on the shoulder above it.

"This is what I do," he says with a tired kind of smile.

On the other side of the stream is a construction site. It's a pile of dirt mostly, seems to be leeching into the stream, which runs under the road and into the bush before joining Squamish River, which in turn runs into the estuary.

"We're without an environmental coordinator here," Buchanan says. "That's who would be checking on this."

According to the district, it's possible for the environmental technician to check up on things like that, but only on a reactive basis, which is the same capacity the coordinator would act under. And yet, Buchanan's lament offers a neat vignette for the manner in which the coordinator's loss is being felt in certain corners of the community.

That position has been vacant since Peter Woods left last year. His departure came as a surprise, especially given it was on the heels of a successful and celebrated riparian bylaw. During the November election campaign, the issue of his absence surfaced a few times, with residents hammering away at candidates during debates. The position had not been nixed, said incumbents. Rather, filling it had been postponed.

The issue surfaced yet again in the earliest days of this new council. Community Development Director Mick Gottardi was explaining the role of his department, introducing staff by way of a photo as he went. Caroline Ashekian is the only member of the department to have the word "environmental" in her title. She's a technician.

Councillor Patricia Heintzman was less than impressed, and she took Gottardi to task for the shortcoming. During a recent instalment of The Truth About Climate Change, an environmental film series underway at the Adventure Centre, Heintzman again piped up on the problem.

"It doesn't make sense to diminish that capacity in the district," she said. "We have very little money, so it's tough."

Tough indeed. Staff has recommended the position be filled, and that recommendation has resonated in the office of the mayor.

"Council has been aware of that and has said so publicly since the decision was made to postpone the decision to hire a replacement," said Mayor Greg Gardner. "So the process that council is planning to go through is to do, in essence, a capacity review as part of the budgeting process for that department. And we'll make a decision for that position.

"Dealing with that issue is something that I see happening as part of the budget process, and we've not loss track of it."

In the interim, green considerations cut across all positions in the district. Planner Sabina FooFat, for example, is hard at work on an energy plan that could see a number of environmentally friendly innovations designed to reduce carbon footprints. Meanwhile, Gottardi's department is buying paint for bike lanes as part of the district's transportation plan.

But for Heintzman, the urgency seems lost. Her feelings on that aren't especially unpredictable. Whether through campaign signage, chambers debate or public speaking, she has framed herself as the electorate's greenest champion.

"I would like my fellow colleagues to realize this a growing responsibility," she said. "Just the way the world is going. It's part of our responsibility, an expectation that's growing. The issues are getting bigger and broader, more complex. Not smaller."

Dealing with those issues, says Heintzman, is the edict of council's provincial overlords. The district has to rein in its air quality. It has to scrutinize development applications. Sensitive areas mapping is paramount. Soil extraction and materials transportation and disposal has to be managed under a greener paradigm. And these are all things that could fall under the purview of an environmental coordinator.

"You look at our site alteration bylaw," she said. "It's very loosey-goosey."

There are many signals pointing towards the reinstatement of an environmental coordinator come budget time, not least of which is the mayor's own position on the issue. To Gardner, the green mentality is alive and well in the district's various limbs. But that isn't enough.

"That's a discussion in most of our meetings and strategic planning sessions I'm involved in," he said. "The discussion is whether environmental issues are separate issues and functions, and whether they override all decisions we make. I think both are true. The planning department has an environmental impact with everything it does. But with respect to the position in community development, that's a more specific function in a sense that specific real estate development applications come forward - and there has to be real estate development and the district somehow has to deal with that."

To that end, today's economic situation buys the district some time. Development has definitely slowed in Squamish, and the town's political and bureaucratic machinery has time to oil itself. Just the same, there is still pressure to move forward.

"Catching up is always more expensive," says Heintzman.