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Comment: Time to move on with North Saanich Official Community Plan review

A commentary by a resident of North Saanich. As a longtime member of the North Saanich community whose family has owned a residential/agricultural property in the municipality for more than 75 years, I am compelled to share my reaction to the Sept.

A commentary by a resident of North Saanich. 

As a longtime member of the North Saanich community whose family has owned a residential/agricultural property in the municipality for more than 75 years, I am compelled to share my reaction to the Sept. 29 commentary and to subsequent letters and commentary regarding the North Saanich Official Community Plan review.

I have gratefully participated in the many opportunities offered for public input to the OCP review.

Having found this an informative and positive experience, I am surprised and disappointed at the controversy and criticisms that have arisen, led by two small but vocal advocacy groups — the North Saanich Residents Association and the SaveNorthSaanich group.

Unfortunately, the actions of these groups seem aimed at delegitimizing and derailing the review process, rather than at creating an OCP that balances needs and objectives of stakeholders.

Partly as a result of the aggressive tactics of these two advocacy groups, respectful dialogue has been strained, creating divisions in the community and inhibiting open discussion.

As examples: comparing the OCP review process to colonization, as one speaker did at a council meeting in July, is inappropriate and deliberately provocative; subjecting volunteer working group members to negative and disrespectful comments make future volunteer participation less likely; and threatening to take legal action against the municipality, simply for initiating an OCP review as provided for under the law, is nothing more than a bullying tactic and intentionally disruptive.

The process used for public engagement during the OCP review has also come under attack with claims that the primarily “virtual” process made necessary by the COVID pandemic cannot substitute for public meetings.

I disagree. A virtual process may change the way engagement looks, but can still be valuable and thorough.

In North Saanich, the engagement process has been extensive and varied, and has been continuously refined and improved after feedback from the community.

Based on high participation numbers, it appears likely that including “online” forums has resulted in increased input, attracting many who might have felt intimidated speaking up in public meetings dominated by a few aggressive groups.

Other municipalities have continued their planning work, such as OCP updates, throughout the pandemic and have done so successfully.

Demands that North Saanich defer any OCP update until the restrictions of COVID end and more public meetings are possible, rather than adapting to the current reality, are simply a delaying tactic and would offer no benefit to the community.

Particularly troubling are the open attacks, often personal in nature, that have been made against North Saanich council, staff, or consultants.

Often these have centred around accusations of a lack of transparency; there have even been suggestions of hidden agendas and outside influence. In fact, the mayor, council members and professional staff have made an enormous effort to communicate each step of the way, responding to every concern and critique that comes their way.

On the other side of the debate, I have serious questions about the agenda and activities of the two groups who challenge the OCP review at every step.

What is the relationship between them? Who do they represent, and what kind of a mandate do they have from their members?

Do they have objectives beyond derailing the current process and undermining the elected council? What is their vision for an OCP that addresses the needs of North Saanich, and does that vision extend beyond uncompromising NIMBYism?

As these groups are demanding more transparency from council, residents have the right to expect the same from them. Council’s responsibility is to represent all in the community and conduct a democratic process, so it is important for them to ensure that the voices of two small but vocal groups do not overshadow, or even quell, those of other community members.

It is time for the OCP review process in North Saanich to move beyond accusations and delays, and refocus on the shared values and desired outcomes of residents.

By remaining respectful of all involved in the process, providing a safe platform for all participants, and keeping an open attitude to other’s views as well as to possibilities and approaches that may be new to the municipality, it will be possible to address our community’s needs.

Increasing housing diversity and supply, enhancing agricultural production, providing housing alternatives for less affluent families, and retaining our seniors in the community as they age are among the objectives that could be achieved while preserving what is valued by residents.

This OCP review is one of the most important ever undertaken in North Saanich. In common with other municipalities in the CRD, North Saanich is challenged to balance the demands of a growing area population and an unprecedented housing shortage with the preservation of green space and protection of the environment.

It’s time for residents to show respect for the process and to support council as they strive to meet that difficult challenge.