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Consultant for North Saanich quits over rift about how council deals with community plan

‘It seems clear that we have lost the confidence of council and the mayor’s OCP advisory committee,’ company writes
North Saanich Municipal Hall on Mills Road. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A consulting company working with the District of North Saanich to review the municipality’s long-term vision has cut ties over concerns about the mayor and council’s approach.

Vancouver-based Modus Planning, Design and Engagement Inc. wrote to the district in February requesting termination of its contract from its role as a planning consultant for a review of the official community plan, a collection of objectives and policies that guide decisions on planning and land use.

The OCP review has divided the community over the past few years, pitting residents open to development to increase affordable housing options against those who oppose change, saying they want to keep the district rural.

“It seems clear that we have lost the confidence of council and the mayor’s OCP advisory committee and, therefore, it is no longer tenable for us to continue as the district’s planning consultant,” Robert Barrs, principal and senior ­planner at Modus, wrote to the district in a letter dated Feb. 20.

Barrs cited several concerns in the letter, writing “there seems to be a ­significant change in scope and ­direction for drafting the OCP,” and the company can’t see how to reconcile direction from the mayor’s advisory committee with the engagement results Modus has collected.

“There is an apparent misalignment of values about how public ­engagement should be conducted to ensure all the voices of a community are heard and respected,” Barrs wrote, adding the mayor’s advisory committee comprises council members and individuals who appear to represent a one-sided ­perspective in the community.

Many of the people Modus heard from supported new forms of housing to address affordability, Barrs wrote. The company must also consider ­provincial requirements for an OCP, which means addressing growth projections, he wrote.

Barrs declined to be interviewed.

Mayor Peter Jones said he’s disappointed in Modus’ decision. The company was hired to provide a draft review, which was expected in the next couple of months, Jones said.

“To be so close to the end of their contract obligations is disappointing,” Jones said.

Council members are now waiting for a legal opinon to be presented in a public meeting on April 3. Councillors were not consulted on what questions to ask of legal counsel, Jones said, and he doesn’t know what to expect to come out of the opinion.

He disagreed with the characterization of the situation in the consultant’s letter.

“Has there been some criticisms on my campaign? Yes, I did do some criticisms. But the criticism was not to get rid of Modus, but to make, in my opinion, some adjustments to it that the majority of residents appeared to be concerned about and wanted a change,” he said.

Jones was endorsed in his election campaign last year by Save North Saanich, a group that says it’s dedicated to “protecting and preserving this precious place from densification and ‘up-zoning’ that has destroyed so many other rural communties.”

Late last year, Jones introduced a successful motion to stop all work on the OCP until the new council had a chance to explore the community’s concerns about the process.

Coun. Phil DiBattista said he’s not surprised by Modus’ decision after some candidates, who have since been elected, criticized the company during last fall’s election campaign.

The OCP review process has been polarizing, sparking “fear and angst” in many, and puts the consultant in a tough spot, because they can’t please everyone, DiBattista said.

“For every person who doesn’t want the district to change in any way, shape or form, there’s also someone who says: ‘Well, what about our young families? What about our seniors? How are we going to grow and evolve?’ ” he said.

DiBattista said he’s worried the district has now lost 2.5 years and $400,000 of work with Modus’ departure.