A controversial environmental bylaw that has divided Saanich residents will be scrapped, with a 5-4 vote by councillors capping a tense public hearing on Saturday.
The Environmental Development Permit Area bylaw, passed in 2012 with the goal of protecting sensitive ecosystems on 2,200 single-family properties, was loathed by some residents, who said the complicated bureaucratic system arbitrarily restricts what they can do with their land. Others argued that the decision to classify certain areas as environmentally sensitive was based on a flawed and outdated mapping system rather than scientific evidence.
“This bylaw was not working for our residents,” said Mayor Richard Atwell, who voted to rescind the bylaw, along with councillors Karen Harper, Susan Brice, Leif Wergeland and Fred Haynes.
“It had lofty goals, but it has had unintended consequences and it lost social licence with the public,” Atwell said.
The decision still has to be ratified at an upcoming council meeting.
Councillors Dean Murdock, Colin Plant, Judy Brownoff and Vicki Sanders voted against rescinding the bylaw.
Plant said he favoured an overhaul of the bylaw, and hoped council could find a way to fix its flaws “in a way that doesn’t take us backward.”
“I believe that by rescinding it, we have left Saanich in a position where, while we rebuild it, there are less mechanisms in place to protect the environment,” Plant said.
Harper, who was elected last month in a byelection to replace the late Vic Derman, campaigned on a promise to rescind the EDPA. She was endorsed by Saanich Citizens for a Responsible EDPA, a group that has long lobbied for the bylaw to be turfed.
Harper sought legal advice on whether she should recuse herself from the vote because her mother’s land is in the permit area. She was told she was not in a conflict of interest and participated in the vote.
“I feel that this is a positive step for Saanich because we need to regain the trust of the community,” she said.
Rescinding the bylaw gives residents who have been affected some certainty in the future, Harper said.
About 50 people spoke at the public hearing, which took place in the gym of the Pearkes Recreation Centre, the space rented because of the large turnout.
Speaker Martin Ward said the bylaw was poorly conceived and represents an “evangelical environmentalism” that “appears to bully and cajole residents.”
Peter Foreman, who wants to improve his property through landscaping, said the bylaw means that residents can’t stick a shovel in the ground without getting approval from the municipality.
A grassroots association, Saanich Action for the Environment, urged the district not to scrap the bylaw, but improve it by following some of the recommendations in an independent review conducted by Diamond Head Consulting.
Ben Kerr, a spokesman for the group, said he’s frustrated that council’s decision is “not based on objective reasoning; it’s based on who is yelling the loudest.”
“Whereas five years ago Saanich was at the forefront of progressive policy in B.C., they’ve taken a step to the back of the line now,” Kerr said.
Council voted 6-3 in favour of a motion, put forward by Plant, that calls on staff to draft a report on how to develop a biodioversity strategy, which could include a new EDPA bylaw.
However, Kerr said it took almost a decade to put forward the previous bylaw, so he expects it will take the same amount of time to develop a new one.
Several environmental bylaws about trees, fill and streams that were rolled into the EDPA will be reinstated as stand-alone bylaws.