Glassing the ridge
What does Metro Vancouver’s new Regional Growth Strategy mean to West Vancouver?
To some citizens, the answer is the future of West Van’s mountainous forests and the city’s famous backdrop. As municipalities get ready to sign onto the new plan, residents are raising the flag on wording it says will open up 4,500 acres above Hollyburn Mountain’s 1,200 foot mark to development.
The district disagrees. If anything, the acreage’s new titles put control of the property’s future in the municipality’s hands, rather than Metro Vancouver, said Bob Sokol, West Van’s director of planning, lands and permits. The new designations also enable the municipality to protect environmentally sensitive lands, he said.
There is a thin line between the old and new language used to govern West Van’s hillside, but it’s created a large divide in opinions.
The RGS provides guidance for coordinated regional decision-making; one could say it’s the area’s highest level of management plan. The plan focuses on five key goals - creating a compact urban area, supporting a sustainable economy, protecting natural assets, developing resilient communities and supporting sustainable transportation choices.
When adopted, the RGS will replace the Lower Mainland’s 15-year-old Livable Region Strategic Plan.
At that point, Metro Vancouver member municipalities will have two years to prepare regional context statements. These statements lay out the relationship between a municipality’s Official Community Plan and the RGS, and how the OCP will be made generally consistent with the regional plan — a kind of trickle down effect.
What’s caught the eye of concerned citizens is the new RGS’s land-use designation for West Van’s Upper Lands.
In the Livable Region Strategy Plan, all lands south of Cypress Provincial Park, but above a 1,200 foot urban containment contour are designated “Under Municipal Consideration.” In 2001, the district completed an Upper Lands study, the results of which were integrated into West Van’s 2004 OCP.
This information was then applied to the district’s regional context statement, of which two statements directly address the Upper Lands. Approximately 2,800 acres of municipal land above the 1,200 foot elevation mark was placed under consideration for green zone title, while 1,700 acres of privately-owned undeveloped land was deemed limited use and recreation.
The new RGS re-titles the green zone to conservation/recreation and the limited use and recreation to general urban.
A fundamental change
Those title changes are fundamentally different, West Vancouver lawyer Paul Hundal said. Not only does it not align with the district’s OCP, but it could potentially allow development 2,000 feet up the mountain, including the entire visible face of Hollyburn, he said. This goes far beyond the district’s 1,200 foot urban containment contour, Hundal noted.
“I think this flies in the face of what West Van residents want,” he said.
What was once green zone is now open to recreational development, which includes hotels or facilities to support outdoor activities, Hundal noted, while the RGS’s general urban stamp is intended for residential neighbourhoods and centres, supported by shopping, services, institutions, recreational facilities and parks.
“We could end up looking like Mary Hill [in Port Coquitlam],” warned Hundal.
While West Van is arguing the general urban designation does not compel a municipality to develop land, Hundal doesn’t buy it. The RGS is a 30-year plan. This council may claim its desire to protect its green areas, but that doesn’t mean the next council will do the same, he said, adding the move opens the door to developers by creating a mandate to move toward residential growth in that area.
West Van could have followed the lead of its neighbour. The District of North Vancouver labelled all its undeveloped land on its mountainside as conservation/recreation, Hundal noted.
“This is a 30-year plan and if people are committed to protecting it [the forests], protect it now,” he said.
Leaving options open
West Van mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones believes the Upper Lands are still protected in the new RGS plan. The 1,200 foot urban containment boundary’s name is the culprit for much of the confusion, she said.
“I see our job very much as preserving the conservation/recreation aspects of our mountainside,” Goldsmith-Jones said.
The district needs to reserve some easily developable sections above the 1,200 foot line for the opportunity of density transfer in exchange for protecting environmentally sensitive areas, Goldsmith-Jones said.
Even before the current regional plan, the district committed to forming green zones in the municipally-owned lands above the 1,200 foot contour and also provided greater protection below that mark. An example of this is the Rogers Creek development, in which green strips bordering creeks have been preserved.
“What is going to happen, I think, is we are going to become increasingly more refined,” Goldsmith-Jones said.
The general urban title doesn’t mean the whole 1,700 acres is game to construction, Sokol said.
“We have a letter from Metro staff that states that just because this area is designated in the regional plan as urban, that does not mean that that area has to develop as urban lands,” Sokol said.
If anything, the designation gives the district the authority to determine the appropriate use of these lands based on local policy, Sokol noted. If the property were pegged for less intensive uses within the RGS and down the road the district wanted to use it differently, the RGS amendment would require a regional public hearing and a two-thirds vote on the Metro Vancouver Board.
“The guiding principle that council and staff have worked on in order to get these designations is to ensure that we can maintain long-term use of these areas,” he said.
One amendment Goldsmith-Jones wants to see in the draft is the removal of the old growth conservancy from the urban designation. The entire area should be included in conservation/recreation title, she said.
“There is just absolutely no question about that,” Goldsmith-Jones said.
The district has until March 22 to consider accepting the RGS, at which time no response will be acknowledged as compliance. Staff will bring a report to council on March 7 regarding designating the Upper Lands as a special study area and dropping the old growth conservancy into the conservation/recreation title.
The municipality plans to undertake its own study of the future use of the Upper Lands in 2012. If the RGS is passed, this study will aid the district in creating its regional context statements, which must be submitted to Metro in early 2013.
Ultimately, the district and concerned citizens are fighting for the same thing, Goldsmith-Jones said, adding the district will incorporate the views of West Van residents in future planning.
“We have all dedicated ourselves to the protection of that mountainside for multiple reasons and we will continue to,” she said.