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Cheema lands proposal rejected again by District of Squamish council

Elected officials vote 4-3 to defeat first reading of what would become a residential development.
Cheema lands DOS
Cheema lands.

For the third time in four years, District of Squamish council has turned down a proposal to include the Cheema lands within its growth management boundary. 

Had it passed, it would have been the first step toward designating the lands viable for residential development.

During its meeting on April 5, elected officials voted 4-3 to deny first reading of the proposal.

Mayor Karen Elliott and councillors Doug Race, Jenna Stoner and Chris Pettingill voted to defeat first reading. 

Councillors John French, Eric Andersen and Armand Hurford voted in favour of granting first reading.

The Cheema lands, officially known as District lots 509 and 510, have been a point of contention within the municipality.

Developer Bob Cheema has proposed turning much of the area into a bustling residential community, but the land lies outside the District's growth management boundary as outlined in the Official Community Plan (OCP).

The boundary serves as a dividing line between where developers can or can't build. The idea is to keep growth within the boundary until certain conditions in the community are met.

Staff have reasoned that this will keep uncontrolled sprawl in check. The boundary, it is argued, prevents the need to encroach on greenspace, and maximizes the use of already-disturbed land and currently existing infrastructure.

District lots 509 and 510 are currently designated for future residential, but Cheema was proposing the land be redesignated as an area suitable for development sooner. 

Since 2018, the area has been considered two other times for inclusion in the growth management boundary.

The first time, it was deemed that the 22,500 population threshold had not been met.

The second time this proposal was considered, the population threshold had been met, but council decided that meeting the population threshold was not the sole criterion for granting the developer's proposal.

The meeting on Tuesday marked the third time the Cheema residential project was considered and rejected by elected officials.

Aran Cheema issued a written statement on behalf of the Cheema family after council's vote. 

"Even though the population has now surpassed the major goal post of 22,500, Mayor Karen Elliott, councillors Jenna Stoner, Chris Pettingill and Doug Race voted to reject our application on the basis that one minor policy is incomplete. Even if this minor policy is completed, the opposing councillors indicated that we should wait another decade," reads the statement sent to The Squamish Chief.

The initial results of the 2021 Statistics Canada census show that Squamish's population is 23,819.

The statement also noted that the Cheema family had been willing to pay for steep slope policy studies for the project, which could've saved taxpayers thousands.

District staff said a steep slope policy is one of the considerations for a development like the Cheema lands, but even with funding from the developer, there isn't enough municipal staff to take on the workload for developing those regulations promptly.

However, the Cheemas appeared to take issue with the municipality's views.

"We know the real reason why games are getting played," their statement said. "Simply put, the District wants to maintain their leverage to hold us at ransom."

The Cheema statement said the goalposts had been moved with the population threshold, and "now the goalposts are moving with completing this one minor policy."  

Before the vote, District staff recommended that elected officials defeat first reading for the proposal to include the Cheema lands within the growth management boundary.

"[The recommendation] is that we do not proceed with an OCP amendment at this time. There's still room in the growth management boundary to accommodate growth. And we still need to finish the list of policies that we're working on," said Jonas Velaniskis, director of planning.

Velaniskis highlighted that there were several municipal policies that would ideally be addressed before expanding the growth management boundary.

"Overall, while there is some compliance with the policies," said Velaniskis. "The application is not able to address all of them at this time."

Before considering a growth management boundary expansion, Section 9.2(g) of the OCP states there must be consideration of negative environmental, social or economic impacts, he said.

Secondly, he said, Section 9.2(h) states a suite of precursor policies must be addressed.

Some of those precursor policies have been taken care of, Velaniskis said; however, others, such as a brand asset inventory — accounting for what will happen to mountain bike trails in this case — and the steep slopes development permit area have yet to be addressed.

Speaking in favour of the development, Coun. Andersen said that there were a number of developments underway in town that did not fully address the issues Velanisikis had mentioned.

Andersen said there were already neighbourhoods built or in the process of being built that have concerns regarding 9.2(g).

"If we were to take those neighbourhoods and developments that are underway or in play, and put together a ledger and discuss 9.2, we have Oceanfront, Waterfront Landing, Scott Crescent, downtown, Ross Road, Loggers Lane East, Centennial Way, and the reason why I'm listing all of them is that… all of them have some issues with respect to 9.2," he said.

"It is loss of employment lands on a large scale. We've lost tourist, commercial and industrial lands. We have parking and transportation issues that come up with some of these. We have habitat loss…We did not get affordable housing at all with one of these large-scale developments. And so, I am looking at that ledger. If we were to put that together, I think that we are treating lot[s] 509 and 510 unfairly. I'm not convinced that this is an inappropriate place for residential development."

Coun. French was also supportive of the Cheema proposal.

"This is a property that's above the floodplain, a property that has been logged a few times," said French. "A property that offers an opportunity to build another needed roadway linking the Garibaldi Highlands to the Garibaldi Estates. And moving it inside the growth management boundary will allow us to start planning for smart construction once we have inevitably significantly filled in the developable land inside our current growth management boundary."

He added that staff noted it would take about eight years between the property being included within the boundary to the first housing unit being built.

French called that an optimistic prediction and said he believed this would take about 10 years or more.

"And this means we'd be a decade away from having another large school property ready for development, more than a decade away from a connector road that we need now, and more than a decade away from having dedicated parking and facilities for the thousands of mountain bike riders, who flock to the end of Perth Drive every year," he said.

Coun. Hurford said that he would support first reading, with the hopes that it would elicit more information.

He said his intent is to spark further engagement from both the public and the developer.

"I'm looking to trigger a comprehensive public engagement process," said Hurford. "The optimist in me says that that'll give the developer an opportunity to wow us with exceeding all of our important policies and bringing forward a world-class development. It could also be that that's not the case. Once this comprehensive public engagement process is underway, that can show the benefits and potential consequences of the proposed change."

The remaining councillors, on the other hand, opposed granting first reading.

Coun. Stoner called some of her colleagues' comments surprising.

"I'm a little bit concerned that some of my colleagues seem to have made up their mind [that] this land should already be within the growth management boundary. We're at first reading of whether that should happen or not, so I was just a little bit surprised by some of my colleagues' comments," said Stoner. 

"I personally don't know whether this land should be in or outside of the growth management boundary. And there are lots of things that need to be weighed in order to make that decision and lots of information and research that needs to be completed in order to inform that decision and inform the discussion that our community should have and when we're making that important decision. But I went back and re-listened to the presentation that we got on this topic a year ago in March 2021. And I don't think that much has changed between now and then with regards to where we're at with the growth management boundary and the policies in the OCP."

Coun. Race noted that many members in the community are concerned with the rate of growth in town.

He noted the extensive size of the land and wondered whether the community needed such a big addition at this stage.

"The fundamental issue is whether we need to grow with this property," said Race. "This is a huge property; it's not a small add-on here, add-on there. It is a huge property, and it brings huge growth issues with it. And so I'm not prepared to consider amending the growth management boundary until we are in a position where we actually need to grow."

The Cheema lands total 422 acres. 

From the perspective of Coun. Pettingill, it was too soon to consider the matter.

"When I look at what we have ahead of us in terms of work and all the timelines together, and what is available within the growth management boundary, and what the OCP says about how we will develop, I don't think we're there yet in doing this," Pettingill said.

Mayor Elliott, who also opposed first reading, said there was no rush to include the land in the boundary.

There are other things that need to be taken care of beforehand, she said.

She said there needs to be time for the affordable housing policy to mature; she called for the community to be included in the province's empty homes and speculation tax zone; and she also wanted to see more of the "missing middle" housing the District has been working on.

The housing society also needs more time to help people achieve affordable homeownership, Elliott added.

There are also climate and environmental issues to consider, she said.

"It's simply not just the OCP policies that we want to make sure we understand. But also our climate policies and how they're shaping up," said Elliott.

"You know, I heard one of my colleagues say, we need parking for the thousands of people that are mountain biking," she said. "No — we actually need to rethink how people arrive in our community, how they participate in the activities here in order to mitigate climate change."


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