Saanich mayor outvoted on ditching eco-bylaw

Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell has tried unsuccessfully to scrap the district’s controversial environmental bylaw with councillors solidly outvoting him.

After a nearly four-hour torrent of negative comments about the Environmental Development Permit Area, Atwell said that “what I’m hearing tonight is that the burden is unbearable and overwhelming.”

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Chris Phillips, for instance, told council that he closed the deal on his Gordon Head Road property only to be told that due to the bylaw, he can build on just 4,000 of his 65,000 square feet.

The tenor of citizen comments prompted Atwell to add: “The only things missing from this meeting are pitchforks and torches.” The mayor said he favoured moving quickly to draft a more suitable bylaw for the estimated 2,000 homeowners affected.

Coun. Vic Derman said scrapping the bylaw at this stage would be “beyond the pale” and Coun. Judy Brownoff said “chaos” would be the result. They said ditching the bylaw would fly in the face of an open house on the issue Saturday and a public meeting in October. “It’s a matter of a few months before we come back with our results, which is fair to everyone,” Brownoff said.

The bylaw states that “alteration of land, subdivision and construction are prohibited within an environmental development permit area, according to the Local Government Act, unless an exemption applies or a development permit is issued.” It is meant to protect from development areas that the municipality calls “rare ecosystems and vital habitat.”

The bylaw appears to affect all waterfront properties in Gordon Head, Cordova Bay, Cadboro Bay and Portage Inlet, according to Anita Bull of Saanich Citizens for a Responsible EDPA.

The mayor urged council to at least exempt the properties of two elderly homeowners on Rainbow Street, specifically brought to council’s attention, but only councillors Leif Wergeland and Colin Plant voted alongside him.

That was despite a video plea by one of the owners, Norm Webb, who is over 90 and caring for his wife 24/7, which is why he couldn’t make his case in person. He said the property they bought 65 years ago does not have the high biodiversity that Saanich staff say it does. His property is all lawn and garden, he added.

He’s concerned that restrictions on what can be done with his land will make it difficult to sell when they need to.

Teresa Bijold, 88, the other property owner, said her property has been suburbanized since 1952, including the removal of large rocks, adding a patio, playhouse, chicken house and greenhouse, ditches dug for a water line and underground irrigation and the planting of trees, shrubs, lawn and garden. “There wasn’t an inch of soil that didn’t see our shovels.”

She said she faces a situation where prospective buyers would not want to take on a property with restrictions on 75 per cent of the total, while she might need the money to move to a residential care facility.

Haji Charania, head of the North Quadra Residents Association, which includes Rainbow Street, said he respected the landowners involved, but feared a precedent that would send the wrong signal to other homeowners and “cause irreversible harm to environmental continuity.”

Ted Lea, a professional biologist, said he has done the only assessment about sensitive ecosystems on the Rainbow properties and “there were no sensitive ecosystems on either property and hasn’t been for at least 60 years.”

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