Saanich Monday rescinded the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw despite a last-minute public protest and pleas from a wide range of residents, including the wife of late councillor Vic Derman, one of the most passionate defenders of the bylaw.
Mayor Richard Atwell, Couns. Susan Brice, Fred Haynes, Karen Harper and Leif Wergeland confirmed their votes last month when council meeting as committee-of-the-whole rescinded the bylaw 5-4 following a public hearing. Couns. Judy Brownoff, Dean Murdock, Colin Plant, and Vicki Sanders — like last month — voted against ending the bylaw.
Saanich had introduced the EDPA in 2012 to protect environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs), but critics of the bylaw say it has restricted their ability to modify their properties in lowering their property values.
Coun. Karen Harper, one of, if not the harshest critic of the EDPA, who filled Derman’s seat following his death, , said rescinding the bylaw allows the community develop a more effective bylaw that rests on science and possesses a clear vision of what Saanich should protect. Saanich, she said, has to go forward after three years of extensive public input. “And the best way forward, is to start over,” she said.
Coun. Leif Wergeland agreed. The EDPA has divided the community, he said. While its end might mean less environmental protection, it has caused considerable grief, he said. “It has become an us-versus-them thing,” he said.
Perhaps the most passionate critique of council’s decision came from Plant, who directly addressed the five members of council who voted to rescind the EDPA. “I respect your decision, but I completely disagree with it,” he said. Council’s decision to rescind the EDPA, he said, would leave Saanich worse off than before the EDPA in pointing to comments from staff, including Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Paul Thorkelsson.
Murdock agreed. While it might be politically expedient to rescind the EDPA, it does not make for good public policy, he said. “I think it will be generations until we see something comparable to the EDPA,” he said, a point echoed by Sanders, who argued that rescinding the EDPA rolls back 25 years of environmental legislation.
Atwell, however, noted that the effectiveness of environmental protection ultimately depends on people, and the EDPA was not respectful of Saanich residents.
Monday’s vote came after councillors had listened to more than 90 minutes of public input, with the balance of speakers arguing against rescinding the EDPA. Several speakers including former council candidate Nathalie Chambers warned council of electoral consequences if it were to rescind the EDPA.
Others including Lauraine Derman — the wife of late Saanich councillor Vic Derman — warned Saanich of “tarnishing” its reputation of being an environmental leader, a comment that observers can also read as an attempt to save the legacy of her husband, a prominent advocate of environmental sustainability. Others including former council candidate Rebecca Mersereau said they were not sure whether the EDPA in its current form represents the most effective instrument to protect the natural environment.
But council, she said, should not rush to abandon the EDPA without having evaluated all options, including keeping the EDPA. “This preemptive motion to rescind the EDPA bylaw is not in keeping with due process or good governance that evaluates all options,” she said.
Council, however, also heard from a substantial number of EDPA critics, with several lamenting the heavy-handed implementation of the bylaw. These voices included among Anita Bull of Saanich Citizens for a Responsible EDPA, and Michael Geoghegan, a former council candidate, who like Harper, ran on the promise to rescind the EDPA.
Saanich staff now begins the task of untangling the EDPA from its books and reverting to the status quo prior to 2012. Council Monday also confirmed directions for staff to prepare a report outlining policy alternatives in lieu of the EDPA. Brownoff warned against delays, because efforts will likely require considerable resources.
Brice, however, said Saanich is not starting from scratch, in pointing to various resources available.
Monday’s undeniably historic vote started with an ultimately unsuccessful protest by a coalition of environmentalists outside Municipal Hall. Larry Wartels, one of the organizers, had said before the vote that he saw a “strong possibility” of changing council’s mind.
Monday’s vote to rescind the EDPA also took place against the backdrop of an unscientific poll conducted by the Saanich News that shows more than three out of four participants oppose council’s move to rescind the EDPA. However, the Victoria Residential Builders’ Association (VRBA) urged council to “stick” with rescinding the EDPA, which the organization described as “a bad policy forcing out of the urban area” in a Tweet sent out mere hours before the vote.