District of Squamish staff say the neighbourhood planning process for the Garibaldi Estates is one of the most contentious endeavours they’ve been involved with.
“We haven’t really experienced this in the past to this level in terms of concern and frustration with the process,” said Jonas Velaniskis, director of planning at the municipality.
“It’s normal for these neighbourhood planning processes with established neighbourhoods to have some friction. That is expected. But this has been, I would say, kind of unprecedented for us.”
On Jan. 11, District bureaucrats updated council on neighbourhood planning for the Garibaldi Estates.
This process is expected to create a road map for future development in that area.
However, the process has been uniquely contentious. Last year, a real estate broker called London Pacific sent letters to homeowners in the area. The broker noted that the Estates were slated for a neighbourhood planning process, which could mean increased densification.
The broker said it had experience in dealing with land assemblies. It did not mention the client it was acting on behalf of.
As a result, residents in the area responded with a petition demanding that the District halt any attempt at densifying the neighbourhood. At a town hall event, locals expressed frustration, commenting that it appeared that language in the Official Community Plan had prejudiced the planning process towards densification.
However, the District has said a planning process would occur and gather feedback that would be used to inform the creation of the final document. The outcome, they said, is not predetermined.
During the meeting on Jan. 11, municipal staff told council that residents have been particularly upset during this process.
“This has been very hard. Hardest project I have ever been involved in my professional career. Only time I felt personally — and it’s the social media, I think, in part — but the only time I’ve felt personally called out, attacked, singled out,” said planner Matt Gunn.
“I feel like there are insinuations of unprofessional behaviour at times, or inappropriate motivations. I find that very challenging. And this has been a very hard process. There is no question.”
Velaniskis said that the engagement process started in fall last year. The pandemic prompted the municipality to use its new online website forum, Let’s Talk Squamish, as the primary method of communicating with people.
There were several surveys with over 600 respondents on the housing topic.
Velaniskis said there was also a mapping activity where participants contributed 277 items.
A question and answer function was heavily used, with just under 100 questions asked, and a vision and ideas activity generated 60 comments.
There were also in-person open houses, which drew 131 attendees, he added. Virtual open houses were also held, and those drew 68 attendees.
Finally, the District participated in a food policy workshop organized by the Squamish Climate Action Network.
There were six key themes that arose from the engagement.
The first theme was that residents considered the Garibaldi Estates a great place to live, and residents appreciated the character and wanted to preserve it, Gunn said.
It was valued for its central location, friendly, quiet streets, access to parks and trails, and its walkability to commercial and employment spaces, trees and large properties, among other things.
A second major theme was that many residents are upset, Gunn said. Many were introduced to the process by a speculative developer.
People questioned OCP policies and the process that led to developing those policies, he said. There was frustration that the intent of the project was to accommodate infill, and that there wasn’t an option to preserve the neighbourhood’s status quo.
They were also disappointed that there was no town-hall-style event where residents could air their concerns with their peers, staff, and council.
The third theme was that many residents had negative perceptions about infill development, and that they wanted their neighbourhood to be left as it is, Gunn said.
There was concern infill could lead to loss of greenspace, loss of food production, traffic problems, an invasion of personal space, and be detrimental to parking and neighbourhood character, among other things.
People were also worried gentrification could increase prices and push people out of their homes.
Residents also were concerned that the neighbourhood planning process appeared to be catered to Lower Mainland residents rather than locals, Gunn noted.
There were a number of people who wanted the VLA bylaw to be retained and not repealed.
At least some of the lands in the Estates are subject to the VLA, or Veteran Lands Act Bylaw, which was originally intended to be a soldier settlement program for returning veterans.
Those lands were intended to be reserved for single-family lots with small-scale agriculture or personal gardens.
The fourth theme, said Gunn, was that there is room for improvement for infrastructure, especially transportation.
There were issues around congestion, sidewalks, parking and safety issues in some intersections in the neighbourhood, among other things.
A fifth theme, he said, was that many key values need to be considered in developing a neighbourhood plan. Residents want to preserve the existing character, food production, and the tree canopy, as some examples.
Many had a desire for housing affordability, and expressed a want for something similar to the Whistler Housing Authority, which manages non-market rental options, Gunn said.
The final theme, he said, was that there was some limited support for specific ‘missing middle’ housing types.
In at least some neighbourhood areas, between 49% to 63% of people supported cottage clusters, small-lot single-family homes and duplexes.
Half the renters surveyed were in favour of triplexes, row housing, townhouses and fourplexes.
Gunn said that half of the respondents also supported mixed-use buildings within the Garibaldi Village area.
Council unanimously encouraged staff to continue the engagement process. Bureaucrats said that there were a number of demographics and stakeholders that they’d still like to hear from.
There was also a desire for community-wide consultation, as opposed to gathering feedback just from residents in the Estates.
Staff said that more engagement sessions will be held.
Coun. Eric Andersen supported the idea, but also expressed some doubt.
He said that he was afraid a cookie-cutter approach was being applied to the VLA lands.
“There’s some pretty strong assumptions, in my opinion, about the significance and priority for climate action, for transportation, for jobs and housing in it with specific reference to this component of the area, the VLA area,” said Andersen.
“I think that the proposed sessions are not going to resolve anything here, and I think that the strong assumptions I feel that are being given need to be reviewed for purposes of a discussion guide.”
Coun. John French said he was afraid the whole process has been taken over by fear of change, traffic, loss of privacy, trees and of newcomers, among other things.
“This is creating concerns that sudden and dramatic change is on the immediate horizon, and I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.
Mayor Karen Elliott said the District perhaps underestimated the effects that speculators would have on the community, and it may have been better for the municipality to have more of a personal touch in explaining the process.
She said she took offence to people accusing staff of having bad intentions.
Elliott also added that she does not feel responsible for individual land speculation.