Why the CRD is broken (and how to fix it)

Nothing in the world is static. Biological forces such as natural selection and competition for scarce resources compel organisms to evolve, transform themselves or potentially die out. The same is true for communities.

There are major challenges on the horizon. The combination of global warming, the rising cost of fuel and food and the increasingly unstable global economy, means our local governments are going to have to quickly restructure how we feed ourselves, how we house ourselves and how we transport ourselves.

Unfortunately the Capital Regional District’s decision-making rules are not up to these challenges. The voting structure is ill-equipped to deal with these larger collective problems that no one municipal government can resolve by itself.  This isn’t just my opinion. The CRD’s track record speaks for itself. Despite years of effort, little progress has been made in developing a top-notch regional public transportation system, in solving the growing homelessness problem, in protecting and expanding local food production or in protecting green spaces from reckless development.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t some visionary, committed public officials working for our municipalities and regional district. There are. It’s just that the decision-making rules they are working with are insufficient to address the challenges they face. In short, the CRD needs to be modernized. Land-use decisions affect us all, which is precisely why the region created a growth strategy in the first place.

Some argue the 13 municipalities need to be amalgamated into one body like Ottawa or Toronto. I disagree. Many of the communities in the CRD have distinct cultures, and the makeup of the CRD is too diverse for a one-size-fits-all solution. The challenges facing Sooke are different from those of downtown Victoria. The character of Saanich is unlike that of the Juan de Fuca area.

That said, decision-makers in each of these areas are confronted with common challenges. How can we build an efficient low-carbon public transport system to move our constituents around?  How do we manage growth?

Attempts of developers and their political supporters to chip away at the Regional Growth Strategy highlight the CRD’s difficulty in dealing with collective problems. Back in 2003, after years of hard work, the CRD adopted a much lauded Regional Growth Strategy, which created a vision for where we should prioritize population density and what areas should be left for farms and forests.

The problem is that the CRD has few effective tools to enforce this collective vision. So, predictably, developers and rogue municipalities have chipped away at the CRD’s growth strategy, exploiting loopholes, finding grey areas and, at times, completely ignoring it. Call it death by a thousand cuts.

This is what has happened in Central Saanich with Ian Vantreight’s subdivision proposal on rural land, with the Bear Mountain fiasco and now in Ender Ilkay’s proposal to bring urban sprawl to the Juan de Fuca region with a controversial plan to build hundreds of cabins within metres of a provincial park and wilderness trail.

Unfortunately, developers have learned that because so few people participate in municipal elections (turnouts are generally around 20 per cent), slates of candidates with a lot of money have a good chance of winning and pushing reckless proposals.

As with too many issues, the real story gets lost in the spin. Ilkay and his supporters are attempting to portray him as the victim, arguing “outsiders” are attempting to deprive him of his land. This spin ignores the fact that when Ilkay purchased the former Western Forest Product forest lands, they were zoned to allow seven homes, which he is still entitled to build. Instead, Ilkay is pushing for a rezoning for 266 cabins.

The majority of CRD directors and the public think Ilkay’s proposal is in contravention of the Regional Growth Strategy, the official collective vision for the region, yet a sub-committee of CRD directors is still cued-up to approve the rezoning. Land-use decisions affect us all, which is precisely why the region created a growth strategy in the first place. This is why we have been advocating for these types of collective decisions to be made by the CRD as a whole. Last week, we were encouraged by the CRD’s decision to ask the province for a new voting procedure for decisions to be made on the forest lands in the Juan de Fuca electoral area.

The decision in Juan de Fuca is especially important, because if Ilkay’s subdivision is approved, it will further erode the CRD’s attempts to bring some sanity to regional growth.

What we really need right now are modern decision-making rules that facilitate co-operative decision-making on the enormous collective challenges facing our region: how we are going feed to ourselves, house ourselves and transport ourselves in a rapidly changing world. And how together we can create and implement a plan to make our region the most liveable in the world.

Two things are clear:  the current system won’t get us to where we need to go, and politicians follow public opinion.

The world belongs to those who organize themselves and show up. It is only when people from across the region stand up and demand change that our politicians will take the actions needed. We’ve done that and now we’re looking to Ida Chong, B.C.’s Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, to act swiftly to approve the new voting procedure the CRD has asked for.

Will Horter is the executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based organization working to make the CRD the most liveable region in the world.


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