Owners irked after Saanich deems properties sensitive ecosystems

Saanich residents are raising alarm about an ecosystem protection bylaw that may make it harder for them to sell their homes.

The Environmental Development Permit Area bylaw, which came into effect in 2012, affects more than 2,000 private properties in the district.

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One of its provisions would prevent homeowners from planting new gardens without a permit, if it damaged native vegetation.

Anita Bull says both her mother, Teresa Bijold, and her uncle, Norman Webb, own properties on Christmas Hill covered by the bylaw.

But she said the handful of Garry oaks on their properties don’t meet the provincial definition of a sensitive woodland ecosystem, with no understory growth of saplings or shrubs.

“None of that is there — it hasn’t been for 50 years. They’re just groomed lawns,” Bull said. “The trees are already protected by the tree bylaw. Now what are you protecting, the lawns?”

Bull also said they weren’t adequately notified their properties would be affected when the bylaw was adopted by council. She recently knocked on about 60 doors in the Broadmead area covered by the bylaw, she said, and only one homeowner knew about it.

The bylaw will be reviewed at the environmental committee’s meeting Tuesday.

Under the bylaw, homeowners in areas designated sensitive eco-systems need a permit not just for major changes, such as construction or paving, but to change the vegetation or remove, deposit or disturb the soil.

Ted Lea, a retired registered biologist with 40 years of experience in ecosystem mapping and a co-founder of the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, said the problem lies in how the bylaw was implemented.

To determine which properties would be covered, the district used aerial maps created by a provincial-federal initiative in the 1990s identifying potentially sensitive ecosystems, he said.

But the district never verified the map’s accuracy on the ground through field surveys. “It clearly states in the documents that it was meant to be used as a flagging tool and then checked on the ground. Once it’s checked on the ground and there’s no sensitive ecosystem identified, it should be removed from the inventory,” Lea said.

Lea inspected both Webb’s and Bijold’s properties and found they did not meet provincial definitions of a sensitive ecosystem. Bull hired Lea to assess the properties, in hopes of gaining an exemption, but said the cost of about $2,500 should be paid by the municipality, not individuals.

One problem with protecting a potentially sensitive area without dedicated ecosystem maintenance is that it creates conditions for invasive species to flourish, Lea said.

There are already too many properties in Saanich that are protected but not maintained, creating eyesores instead of ecological gems, he said.

Coun. Vicki Sanders, who chaired the environmental committee that approved the bylaw, couldn’t say why Saanich didn’t verify the map before applying the bylaw.

But she said letters were mailed to each affected homeowner.

Sanders said the ecological value of individual properties has to be considered as part of a larger picture, not in a vacuum.

“If you look at the mapping, it shows large areas and they’re complete ecosystems,” Sanders said.

Coun. Dean Murdock, current chairman of the committee, said the bylaw is similar to others protecting natural features in the district, including streamside areas.

“I’m supportive of the intent,” Murdock said. “It’s really designed to be a protective tool, so that in the event of a change in land use, redevelopment or rezoning, we’re protecting those areas.”

The bylaw includes a list of exemptions, which gives some wiggle room for errors on the map, he said.

“There are going to be some areas identified on the map that probably aren’t environmentally sensitive. In those cases, there are provisions in the bylaw that allow it to be revised,” Murdock said.

District staff are looking to clarify interpretations of the bylaw, with proposed amendments at the committee’s meeting Tuesday.

Bull has launched a petition calling for bylaw reform at petitions24.com/ saanich_edpa.

A map is available at saanich.ca/living/natural/resources/edpaatlas.html.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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