It has been a long, twisted and bitter battle over the Laburnum wetlands in Qualicum Beach. So how exactly did we get here and is there really anything new to discuss? With a trove of approximately 1000 pages of newly released public documents, we plan to give a little bit of a recap and introduce new shocking information that will uncover what the Town knew, and when the knew it.
The wetland lot (Lot C) has been almost entirely protected by an Ecological Development Permit Area and a Hazardous Lands Development Permit Area for decades. These protections were adopted in our Official Community Plan after this federally & provincially recognized sensitive ecosystem was ground-truthed in the early 2000s.Trees cannot be removed. Roads cannot be paved. No construction activity can take place without a Development Permit and a Building Permit according to our bylaws.
Upon noticing construction activity in February 2020, we requested the Development Permit and the Building Permit (neither exist). We were instead told that an exemption was granted after reports were collected. We were not given a copy of the exemption document (it doesn't exist), but we were provided a copy of the Environmental report. With a single glance, it appeared inadequate to meet the rigour required by our bylaws.
Due to the lack of transparency, we reached out to West Coast Environmental Law who validated our concerns and awarded us legal grants to start an investigation. As we began to disseminate information about this project, a beleaguered mayor under a Federal Compliance Order interjected himself into the situation--thereby escalating it--by discounting concerned citizens and casting them aside as dissidents. Despite the gusto and confidence, the Town's position has slowly deteriorated in the light of the initial FOI results.
Since then, heels have dug in. Discourse has devolved. The rest is history...
As of today, we have not seen a single official document that authorizes the construction activity on this lot.
As mentioned, on February 18, 9:53 PM, we first asked Town Staff and Council for this information and expressed concern about the ecologically sensitive nature of this lot. Less than 12 hours later at 9:31 AM, the Building Inspector wrote the following to Town Staff:
This "Limited Geotechnical Assessment" was never voluntarily shared with us by the Town and the council voted against releasing it to the public. But it appears that the Town knew the geotechnical report was inadequate before a single tree was removed. At this point in Februrary, the building inspector called for a new report that addressed the flood concerns.
Based on our own evaluation of lacking Environmental report, we called for the elusive exemption to be rescinded. On March 9th, 2020, the Director of Planning wrote:
Now here we stand and see that it doesn't appear whatsoever that the building inspector was satisfied with both reports. This is why we remain very confused as to why he--if true--would be the one who issued the verbal exemption according to Town Staff. To clear up this confusion, we asked the building inspector if he is indeed was the one who issued the exemption, and it appears he "was not employed with the Town at that time". So we also asked the former building inspector, who denied this as well, and told us that development permit exemptions are not part of the job function. It doesn't appear anyone knows who authorized this!
We have also found out that it wasn't just the Building Inspector who found the reports lacking. On May 5th, long after the trees were removed, the Director of Planning was asked:
If the Director of Planning was asking for specific changes in May on what should be an independent professional report, how could he have been satisfied in March? But more alarming, just 2 days later and months after the clearings, the Building Inspector made note of an even larger problem for the project: the proposed homes on the Town's sitemap can't even fit between the minimum watercourse setback and the property line setback (without Council intervention).
While the public information campaign was in full effect, it appears that behind the scenes the building inspector was doing his job trying to deal with this known troubled project. Unfortunately, construction activity was well underway on this protected lot for oversized homes that can't even fit.
We will forever believe that wetlands and sensitive ecosystems are worth fighting for, especially in the face of climate change. But this is not what we are asking.
Around the time we began seeking information, Town Staff was working on obtaining new reports to replace the inadequate ones--and those inadequate reports were the only things used to justify the construction activity (which regardless of reports, still required a building permit according to our building bylaws). Meanwhile, the public was being told that everything--this "business as usual"--was perfectly in order while protected trees that serve as a wind-buffer to a sensitive and valuable ecosystem were uprooted.
So when we ask this question, please understand that it is not rhetorical. If the Town was aware of lacking reports, no traceable exemption, no building permit and unclear site plans with improper setbacks, just why exactly did anyone have to fight over this issue? Why couldn't the Town of Qualicum Beach simply take a breath in February, ensure the paperwork was in order before potentially harming one of our most sensitive ecosystems, and communicate properly with the community? What was the rush to clear land and further delineate this essential wetland? Just why couldn't they immediately pause, admit mistakes and pursue the diligence we should expect from our public servants?
Since this battle has begun, we have been labeled as dissidents. We have suffered public defamation from members of Council and the development community. We've even had insinuations of impropriety posed to our legal partners by an elected councillor; such antics seemed to have been adopted by an ally of the Mayor & president of a local residents association, who took it upon themself to ask financial questions of WCEL that they deemed "inappropriate". And of course, we've been at the recieving end of an intimidating letter from the Mayor Brian Wiese, who targeted a private citizen personally in a $933 taxpayer-funded advertisement.
But most disturbingly, when a member of our community reached out with concerns and questions about this project--which the Town seemed to know was problematic--Town Staff drafted a letter for them threatening legal action:
Is this how we should treat community members whose concerns can be labeled entirely appropriate in retrospect? Is this how we should engage the public, with threats to stymie debate and shutdown legitimate questions?
And please make no mistake: we are not playing victim. Every act that we interpreted as intimidation, obfuscation or bullying was reciprocated out of a love for our community and a concern for the environment. Unlike politicians, we aren't here to play nice. We aren't here to curtsy. We've stood our ground with vigour and zeal, unapologetically, thrusting truth forward with tenacity. We have only guaranteed to tell the truth (or publish it), and simultaneously guaranteed that you likely won't always like the way we tell it.
But in light of this new information, recalling the barbs traded on both sides, we are disheartened. We are dissapointed. We are saddened. The amount of effort spent on both sides to fight an ugly public battle has been exhausting, astounding and ultimately wasteful. With an economic recession as the backdrop and families in pain, we cannot fathom how the resources devoted to this battle could be responsibly justified. This fight should never have happened. Not when an open and honest conversation would have been more effective.
When we recall the Hoylake Heron debacle, in which the Town ignored its own experts' recommendations, its citizens and the Province, and fought forward against the concerned community--right up until the moment the Federal Government stepped in--we cannot help but wonder if there is a systematic problem.
Sometimes, on common sense issues like safe school crossings or cleaning up a derelict construction site, it feels like opportunities for community collaboration just turn into conflict. And now we have proposed rural sprawl into our protected Estate Residential properties--which our own Town Staff notes is in conflict with our OCP--poised for yet another large, ugly public fight.
Just what does our Town think about public consultation? As citizens, how can we interpret it when every opportunity to engage us in good faith manner turns into a knock-down, drag-out war, where "misinformation" (fake news) is the rallying cry of a determined Council trying to ward off its community? Just how did we get here? And how do we heal?
In all honesty--after playing the part of the "dissidents"--we don't know. Seeing the evidence before us after the two FOI results, was there any other way to engage this Council and Town to push for due diligence (if not for this wetland, perhaps for the next)? So often, it just seems like one-way conversation and the environment is not really invited to the table. Perhaps the citizens are not either?
The lot is currently for sale. In its entirety. While it was purchased over 2 years ago for $547,000, it has just been listed for 1.2 million dollars. This is the first indication that this project may no longer be moving ahead. Despite an extensive clearing, wetland delineation, and an unfinished road that looks like a flood hazard waiting to happen, we must assume that not a single Development Cost Charge (DCC) has been collected.
A Town normally requires permits, fees and deposits; they cover the infrastructure costs and act as a form of security. A Town can more easily ensure a proposal will actually be finished when there is skin in the game. We skipped that step. We skipped a lot of steps here to make sure just 2 McMansions could be built on a protected lot.
We don't know what might be built here one day. We don't know how the clearing might impact the wetland. We don't know how the built up soil might displace flood water. We don't know how the unfinished road might pool water, and if it might send it straight out to the highway. All we know is a chunk of land that we all should never had to fight over sits there for sale--likely overpriced--waiting one day for an interested party to perhaps pitch a new idea at the Town.
What we would like is for the fighting to stop. The truth is on the table. We know what the Town knew and we know when they knew it. We can only guess why this ever became a fight or why Mayor Brian Wiese invested so much political capital into this troubled project.
Further, we would also like to see this property--which has had countless development proposals denied over the years--simply downzoned for good; it's time to finally put 2 decades of this mess to bed and award the developer an amenity density bonus on another piece of land. In addition, our offer to help the Town purchase this land as a municipal asset to add to our watershed still stands.
More immediately, we sincerly would like to be involved in an effort to remediate the damage and replant the trees. This is a cause we believe our whole community could get behind in the short term.
In conclusion, we do really hope that our citizens and the Town can more closely work together to resolve conflict and work for the betterment of the entire community. We hope that we can all embrace the words of the late Jack Layton when he said,
We are all better than this, and we all deserve more. But its also all our responsibilities to create that world we deserve. Our hand remains outstretched to the Town as a first step. We hope to hear from them soon.