Last week, after two years of controversy, an application to build nearly 300 houses along the Juan de Fuca trail was denied by the Capital Regional District (CRD) board.
This historic decision came on the back of an unprecedented campaign involving thousands of people that culminated with three days of public hearings. The people spoke, and finally somebody listened.
This triumph for our community was exciting, monumental and convincing but troublingly temporary. As a primarily rural area with vibrant urban cores the CRD is at risk of becoming a nightmare of commuter subdivisions and we can expect to continue dealing with reckless development applications for the foreseeable future.
The Silver Spray, Bear Mountain and Vantreight controversies revealed to us all that the cards are stacked in favour of real estate speculators. To continue defeating these odds, we would be wise to glean lessons from our recent victory.
Obstacles to success
When Ender Ilkay first presented his proposal for the Juan de Fuca trail we were staring down some blindingly complicated and self-contradictory legislation, a biased voting structure, well-resourced opponents and a political system that discourages public involvement. Success against these odds was going to take a heroic level of co-operation between people of different age groups, municipal boundaries and ideologies.
Navigating the rules
Our first hurdle was with the rules, procedures and the application itself. The CRD, like most regions in the province, has a Kafka-esque land-use planning system. It is a maze of policies that simultaneously contradict and validate each other. The politicians administrating this system all have slightly different interpretations of what these rules mean, as do most of the lawyers I’ve worked with. Fortunately, some dedicated volunteers and very patient legal experts worked for days to sort through the details to figure out what was happening and where we could raise our concerns.
Finding a voice
These policy geniuses were joined by others in the community at countless CRD board meetings where they raised their concerns. Having articulate and informed people in the room clearly had an impact on politicians, but the sheer volume of presentations was even more impressive. From January to May there were between 30 and 50 people lined up at each CRD meeting to make five-minute presentations and the viewing gallery was filled to capacity each time. The CRD had no choice but to prioritize this issue because community members were clearly ready to continue shutting down meetings until their concerns were acted on.
Making democracy accessible
Participating in democracy should be fun. It should be something that people are encouraged to do and believe to be an effective use of their time. The local decision-making process accomplishes exactly the opposite. People who could take an afternoon off work to attend a board meeting had to fill out a form on a back page of the CRD website to ask permission to speak to their own government. If they did so correctly, within the correct 72-hour window, and if the board voted to accept their request, they were allowed to make a presentation. The people who were able to participate were greeted by an intimidating and unwelcoming environment and many left those meetings feeling ignored and frustrated. To counter this exclusion we had to organize alternative means of expression to help people communicate with their representatives.
Phone call blitzes and e-mail campaigns were enormously popular and successful. They gave an extraordinary number of people the opportunity to become part of the campaign, they reinforced the messages that CRD directors were receiving from people in their meetings and, most importantly, they made it impossible for board members to avoid the controversy. The e-mail campaign organized through Dogwood was so popular that it crashed e-mail servers and the telephone blitz basically shut down the offices of each director for a day. There were also those who needed to be heard by putting their bodies and their voices in the street. Twice in five months hundreds of people shut down Fisgard St. with ideologically driven rallies that presented urban sprawl as a vehicle for exploitation. I have it on good authority from supportive CRD directors that these also forced the board’s hand.
The unique thing about this campaign was that (for the most part) the protesters and policy experts swallowed their frustrations with each other’s tactics and welcomed each other’s participation at information meetings and public hearings.
At the conclusion of this campaign it is glaringly obvious that our land-use decision-making system needs reform. Its cumbersome nature specifically favours a select few people who can afford to make a career out of manipulating its loopholes at our expense. Further, it specifically if not deliberately excludes most of our community from participation. Given that our collective ambition is to create safe and resilient places to live, it is in all of our interests to see this system radically transformed into one that can work for us. In the meantime, while applications for urban sprawl continue to roll in, people need to continue responding according to their own terms and with patience for everyone else’s. If we can do this, we have an opportunity to create one of the most livable communities anywhere in the world.