Seeking the mayor's chair

Susan Chapelle focuses on transportation, housing and economic development in her quest to be mayor

Anyone who knows Coun. Susan Chapelle can agree on one thing about her — she has more energy than the Energizer Bunny.

First elected to Squamish council in 2011, the business owner and massage therapist has often been a vocal supporter of downtown businesses, active transportation and access to services for vulnerable women.

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When she isn't working, she can be found climbing a rock face, bumping through trails on her mountain bike, playing the violin or transforming a slab of wood into a piece of furniture. And she fits all that in between activities with her partner and daughters.

After two terms as a municipal councillor, Chapelle has her eyes set on the mayor's chair, throwing her hat in the ring for the helm of the council in the Oct. 20 election.

Mayor Patricia Heintzman is also running for re-election.

The Chief caught up with Chapelle at Aligned Collective, the co-sharing workspace and education hub she co-founded on Second Avenue.

 

Q: What are you most proud of from your time on council so far?

A: My proudest achievements are the commitment to a healthy community and developing a partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health. Understanding how the built environment impacts the health of our community.

These achievements are something I wanted for my children.

I fought for an active transportation budget equal to our paving budget. For the many years my opponent has been in office, we have only had a paving budget. This means no funded sidewalks or bike lanes.

We now have a separate budget line to help integrate active transportation. I have lobbied for active transportation, adequate parking, and safe routes to school.

My work on transportation has transformed the bus system and increased ridership by over 23 per cent.  We now have a park service. I sought a transportation co-ordinator to align public bus schedules with school schedules. When I was elected in 2011, our children were showing up 30 minutes late for school and leaving 30 minutes early.

Nobody had ever thought to co-ordinate arrival times with school times. There had not been a school board meeting with council in seven years. We now meet regularly.

When I ran for office in 2011, the Official Community Plan (OCP) had not been adopted for years. The entire community was zoned industry. It made it impossible to open a professional office in Squamish. I pushed council to adopt the OCP and then to renew it. I pushed for a modernization of our zoning, and renewal. We just adopted the new plan, despite opening it up immediately to rezone green space into townhomes. Disappointing.

Electric Vehicle infrastructure and policy, solar panel policy, and protection of green space, mapping, marijuana policy, as well as natural asset measurement, are all policies I am proud of putting forward.

I have made it possible to open childcare in neighborhoods and stratas, and have raised the number of children possible to care for in a home-based daycare. I succeeded in the removal of extra utility charges for home-based daycares.

 

Q: Council just passed third reading of the Cheekye Fan development. Why did you support the project?

A: I have always supported this development. The Cheekeye Fan project is a partnership with our Squamish First Nations.

This project is a new economic development for the Squamish Nation. As a Holocaust survivor family, I feel what it is like to have land and opportunities appropriated. To allow the First Nations an opportunity to be involved in a project that comes with housing opportunities, a well-planned neighborhood with trails and parks, as well as great community safety benefits was important. This also gives back the Brackendale Farmers Institute land to the District.

The province granted this difficult piece of land to the First Nations for their development. This land is directly in the path of a well-studied debris flow hazard, which has a high probability of being a horrific, life-threatening natural disaster. All of Brackendale, including Don Ross Middle School is in the path of this hazard. This development allows us to partner with the Squamish Nation, a developer, and our community to protect our town and the reserves with a barrier.

The barrier is an expense that would be impossible to imagine without sharing the funding with partners. Without this barrier, our community — and especially our children — are at risk. Doing nothing was not an option for me.

 

Q: What — if anything — would you like to see happen now that Greyhound is leaving?

A: Transportation has always been my passion. Greyhound leaving will allow the District to explore new opportunities with private and public partners without opposition from that service.

Regional transportation is critical to employment. We have been building solely residential, and no community economic development. Under this leadership, we have become a bedroom community. Forty per cent of our town commutes to work. A Memorandum of Understanding between Sea to Sky communities to start another committee is not enough. We need to collect our transit tax from gas, and we need to have mass transit to Whistler as well as Vancouver. Now that Greyhound will be gone, there may be more opportunity to fund regional transit.

 

Q: Downtown business taxes are very high, as you know. That is a result of BC Assessments, so out of council's control for the most part. Is there anything you would like to have seen done differently regarding business taxes?

A: I am an entrepreneur who has owned businesses in Squamish for 19 years. Between zoning, taxes, growth opportunities and land constraints, business has always been difficult in Squamish. Our taxes have always been high for the size of our population in comparison to other provinces, and rural B.C.

Assessment is in control of council, as it is based on zoning. We have zoned all of our economic land into high-density housing, causing a 17 per cent increase in assessments last year.

Add to our residential taxes, and scarcity of economic land availability and our businesses are struggling to compete and grow.

[For this year, businesses were taxed 2.73 times that of residential properties. The Residential Municipal rate was 3.1789. The Business rate was 8.6784. Tax rates for 2018 can be viewed at squamish.ca/our-services/taxes-and-utilities/.]

Not only do we lack the space to grow our businesses, but we are taxed based on height and residential density. Meanwhile, we are giving tax incentives to larger developers. Many small business owners are struggling to stay open and compete with a more globalized economy. The idea of attracting larger business to Squamish is not a reality when there is no office space to occupy.

We have spent enormous amounts of money on fairy tale economics and consultants without addressing the basic needs of local businesses. Collaboration with the Squamish Chamber of Commerce and the business community is needed, not just on hospitality courses but taxes and land use. 

 

Q: You are very passionate about issues, but how would you handle being mayor and having to advocate for what the councillors want, even if you don't agree with their decision?

A: I have worked across many sectors. I studied economic development, published literature as a researcher in health care, and have an MBA. I have come to understand that working together is about supporting opposing ideas, learning from each other, and finding common values to be passionate about.

Advocating for good decision-making is absolutely wonderful when you have people that work together well, have robust discussions and then vote. Unlike the previous mayor and council, we have not had that opportunity this term. The last term under then-mayor Rob Kirkham, there was robust discussion, but the decisions made were collaborative.

The agenda was collaborative. Council was invited in. We could disagree, and still go out for a drink after and respect each other's difference of opinion. This council has not been cohesive, nor collaborative. There is an art to dialogue and listening, as mayor I can promise that I will be practicing these skills and be open to all ideas. I hope the next council will work together to build a future that our children will be able to participate in.

 

Q: You have said you will recuse yourself from issues around Woodfibre LNG after taking a grant from them for Aligned Collective. Do you stand by that decision and do you understand why people saw that as a conflict?

A: I did not personally "take a grant."  Aligned Collective and the board of directors applied for many grants and received funding from two sources. Aligned Collective is a not-for-profit society that is helping Squamish grow local community economic development.

We provide space for other non-profits to share collective resources, and for entrepreneurs to build their ideas into sustainable business models. Staying open in Squamish is a problem for any start-up and any business. Operating costs and commercial leases are out of proportion to our size.

We built Aligned Collective because four years of separate economic development committees all spoke to the need for an economic accelerator. Thirteen years in office for our current leader, and nothing to hub entrepreneurs and grow our local economy had been built, despite committee recommendations.  Aligned Collective wanted to make it work to help young entrepreneurs have a space to learn, grow and collaborate across sectors on ideas.

In Squamish, big business has always been generous to start-ups and social enterprises. As a society, we demand large corporations be held responsible. To contribute. There are limited grants that fund operations, but anyone who runs a not-for-profit knows that this is critical for survival. However, when corporations fund environment or social enterprise, it becomes controversial. In our small town, there is no funding for social start-ups. We were successful at two grants, which allowed us to install technology and stay open. We are now self-sustaining. One of the first rural economy co-working spaces in Canada to do so.

WFLNG community sponsorship grants have contributed over $700,000 to Squamish. This year, there were eight community recipients for funding. All of which went to helping kids programming. Aligned Collective was singled out of all the groups, and despite no conflict, our start-up was dragged through the mud. It affected our ability to operate a new startup that was built for our small community groups. Instead of doing the good work we started, we were forced to defend the small amount of funding we received to run children's programming. I am no longer on the board of directors of Aligned Collective, and will always be a co-founder not unlike other politicians. We are all members of the community who are involved in, or have started groups to help community. This is why we become politicians. In a small town, this is always something to be cognizant of, but in no way am I in conflict. I have not received any personal remuneration from Aligned Collective, or WFLNG. 

 

Q: What will be your top three priorities as mayor?

A: Transportation; we have done well with the recommendations from the transit committee I chaired for three years. I intend to continue ensuring that connectivity is robust, on-time and gets our citizens to both economy and recreation.

Housing; We have overdeveloped with very little for our workers or our non-market housing. Our housing fund has built too slowly and most of it has been spent on consultants, not housing.

I have asked for a housing authority for eight solid years, at every housing discussion. It's almost too late, we should have had a way to manage housing that did not strain our resources that need to be focusing on other community needs. We need to have a way to manage our housing collectively and ensure developers who are asking for rezonings are contributing to rental and affordable units. 

Economic Development: Creating a vibrant, resilient and sustainable local economy has always been my mandate. Both in my personal business and on council. As a business owner and entrepreneur, I see our community struggling to maintain employees and meaningful work. Our zoning impacts everyone's ability to run a successful business, find office and industrial space, and stay locally employed.

 

Q: Watching council, at times it seems strained between yourself and either District staff or other councillors. As mayor, how would you create a functioning council that can disagree, but move forward and get things done?

A: It has been a tough term, and our council is obviously strained. I encourage the public to watch the last few meetings. Being interrupted is disruptive to collaborative dialogue. I have worked hard at building consensus and equity. I won the Squamish Chamber award for Business Person of the Year in Squamish for my skills in these areas.

I would allow my council the opportunity to express their vision and ideas. I don't expect to agree, but I do expect respectful dialogue and process. I am a leader, a collaborator, and an advocate for my public. I love dialogue, debate and new ideas. I would encourage respectful disagreement and viable solutions.

 

Q:  Are you happy with the economic development that has been achieved in the district and what if anything would you do differently as mayor?

A: All cities should strive for robust local economic development. I am not happy with our current situation. Without the ability to have local jobs, we dilute our quality of life. Every day I meet passionate, committed business owners trying to make it work here, but I also meet so many who have had to leave town for work, and are leaving Squamish because they can no longer afford the place they love.

We have asked our staff to spend time on the impossible, all while giving away residential development zoning on industry and employment lands. Our business licenses have tripled, all in the residential building sector. We have failed to diversify. If interest rates go up, we will see a downturn in pricing, which will dry up that employment. We have little space to work or grow our businesses, no housing for employees, no accord with the First Nations, no tax deal with LNG, and little parking or plans for parking. We gave away public land to private businesses with no benefit and negotiated very poor contracts.

Without the ability to build relationships and negotiate deals, we have lost economic opportunities.

 

Q: You haven't been supportive of the proposed Buckley Avenue development that aims to be a partnership with BC Housing. Why not and what would you rather see to help the rental crisis in Squamish?

A: I have not been supportive of rezoning green space, or land that can be used for future health care needs into more residential zoning. Buckley was pushed forward without any financial or long-term business plan. I will not pass rezonings on a hunch; I need to fully understand the consequences to the taxpayer.

It was not affordable housing; it was [approximately] $2,000 a month housing. We have never developed a project; it is not our expertise. Generally, when government develops, the cost is astronomical.

Asking for financials and for project details before approval is prudent, especially if the ratepayer is on the hook for cost overruns and long-term management. There was no strategy, just a picture of a project and some number guesses. Buckley is also sensitive habitat. It has a history as a green space used for the high school to educate the students.

We have no neighborhood park [in that area] and millions of dollars in infrastructure debt.

[In the Real Estate and Facilities Strategy it says "An investment in excess of $100m is possible for all of the facilities that are candidates for replacement, upgrading or expansion and for new facilities identified to provide new services to meet future growth." The District of Squamish's total debt at the end of 2017 was $25,337,012.]

We are responsible to ensure our community needs are met, and 70 more units of rental housing with no management costs on this piece of land will not solve anything. We are taking in rental housing with each development proposal, and with a better management authority such as Whistler's housing authority, it would give a better long-term solution.

 

Q: What do you envision can be done to upgrade Brennan Park Rec Centre?

A: Brennan Park needs to be rebuilt. We currently don’t own the land, so this also needs to be addressed with the Crown. I don’t believe adding new infrastructure to an old core is a responsible thing to do.

We have land downtown, and in order to pay for anything with our current debt load, we may have to look at combining some of our public buildings. Brennan Park is on a bus route, as well as the Corridor Trail. Moving Municipal Hall and freeing up valuable economic land downtown may be possible, and can provide funds.

We will require partnerships. I play hockey, swim and have two kids. This community centre is an incredibly important resource. Many communities manage to renew their community spaces, including towns smaller than Squamish. The real estate priorities have to be considered, we have a fire hall [that needs work].

Again, how has our current leadership not foreseen the massive real estate debt we are in? I don’t believe the state of our debt, infrastructure needs and real estate deficits are a surprise to anyone.

 

Q: When we spoke after you announced your candidacy for mayor, you said you don't think the District has planned well for the current growth. But, as Mayor Heintzman pointed out to us, there are strategic plans for almost everything imaginable in the district. What else could have been done?

A: Mayor Heintzman has been in office for 13 years. There have always been strategic plans for everything imaginable, but they have not been funded nor resourced appropriately. We have no neighborhood plans, and have densified residential without sidewalks, connectivity or funding for our infrastructure. When I joined council, we had no understanding of our economic land base.

No plans for active transportation. We have shelved almost all of our consultations; hiring experts then not listening to them. We spent millions on signage, but don’t fund the retention and expansion program for local business.

We invite tourism but don’t have trailheads or parking. ‘Strategic’ is not just having a plan. It’s being capable of funding the plan through having a robust economy, and a leader that understands and has participated in that economy.

 

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