The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of its citizens.
Aldo Leopold, Father of the Land Ethic
The EDPA, or Saanich’s Environmental Development Permit Area, is intended to support biodiversity conservation in Saanich, and is top-of-mind for many voters in this by-election. It impacts over 2,000 private properties in our municipality. I’ve talked to many people on both sides of the issue and poured over several reports to approach it objectively and inform my thinking on how we should proceed. I applaud the intent of the bylaw, as do many of the individuals with valid concerns about its implications and implementation. I also have a good understanding of the science underlying the policy objective; I began my academic pursuits with a BSc in biology and am a former Executive Director of the Garry Oak Ecosystem Restoration Team Society (GOERT). But I have many regrets about what transpired as I’ve watched it unfold over the last few years.
What went wrong (in a nutshell)
- Communication could have been better (before the bylaw was developed, and during implementation). Most problematic was the insufficient attention given to educating and communicating to residents prior to bylaw development about the problem the EDPA was intended to address, why biodiversity conservation is a critical District of Saanich priority, and about the uniqueness of our region’s natural environment and ecosystems. (Did you know there are almost a hundred threatened species in our region that aren’t found elsewhere in Canada? They need protection and habitat restoration to survive.)
- Proliferation of invasive species in some of our parks (which are the most significant threat to the conservation of our rare species) undermined Saanich’s credibility when the bylaw was brought forward. Excluding municipal parks from the bylaw provisions further eroded credibility and contributed to cynicism among the public.
- Use of imprecise mapping as the basis of the regulation contributed to misunderstanding about the intent and implications of the bylaw.
- Limited proactive communication from Saanich and insufficient clarity in the bylaw and subsequent procedures resulted in significant uncertainty for residents and led to valid concerns about the implications for development and property values.
Where do we go from here?
I’m guessing you’re after a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Should it stay or should it go? I hate to disappoint, but I’m a little more nuanced than that, and so is this issue. Plus, I’m not willing to adopt a seemingly popular position simply for the sake of winning votes. Instead, I’ll outline the current state of my thinking on this and illustrate how, as an elected official, I will approach this and each decision thoughtfully, with fair and objective consideration of all sides of an issue. At heart, I am a pragmatist. Even though I recognize that the EDPA is not out-of-step with similar bylaws in other jurisdictions, the writing is already on the wall for Saanich’s EDPA as it was originally envisioned, due to the recent actions of the existing Council. Attempting to reverse their decision to temporarily remove single-family, RS-zoned properties from the EDPA (which encompass the large majority of affected properties) is not likely advisable for candidates of any stripe due to the extreme mistrust that currently exists between the municipality and EDPA-impacted property owners, and the significant unplanned costs that further deliberation on the EDPA is likely to entail. (Incidentally, I think it was very imprudent of Council to make such a consequential decision only weeks before receiving the results of an independent review of the EDPA that they themselves had commissioned.) In principle, I support retaining the EDPA for new subdivision development so that biodiversity conservation and impact mitigation are important considerations as we inevitably densify and re-develop in Saanich. However, in my view, significant bylaw amendments and procedural improvements are needed, such as:
- removing mapping as the basis of the regulation (the alternative approach of improving mapping is likely to cost-prohibitive);
- ensuring decisions are science-based by upholding professional opinions and establishing a qualified technical committee to adjudicate complex cases; and,
- developing clear guidelines for property owners and qualified professionals to determine what, if any, restoration potential a property has, and what the associated expectations for restoration are.
Many other thoughtful suggestions are outlined in a recently-released independent review of the EDPA. Given the extent of these yet-to-be resolved issues and the relatively few properties the bylaw will apply to going forward, I can’t help but wonder if there is a more efficient approach that could produce comparable outcomes at lower costs to the municipality and private property owners. In line with this thinking, I think Saanich should adopt a more holistic approach to biodiversity conservation that includes education and potentially incentives, in addition to regulatory approaches. These last two strategies are widely used alternatives to meet government policy objectives and they have the added benefit of changing behaviour through voluntary mechanisms, rather than through regulations that almost always have unintended consequences. Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on what this could entail.
Lead by example in our extensive network of parks. Our municipal parks represent significant historical investments and hold a lot of untapped restoration potential that could help us meet biodiversity objectives. They already host many rare species, and given their protected status and significant surface area, the likelihood of successful restoration of Garry Oak and associated ecosystems is likely to be much higher on this public land. Leading by example on our public lands is also essential to gain the credibility required to secure more widespread support for voluntary restoration on private properties. The spectacular display of wildflowers in Playfair Park each spring is an exemplary demonstration of the potential of volunteer restoration efforts in our parks when they are supported by relatively modest resourcing and a cooperative, can-do attitude. Here are some concrete approaches to make this a reality:
- Bump up the very modest annual investment in the Pulling Together Program, which leverages a huge amount of volunteer support in our parks, and direct some expertise and effort to ecosystem restoration, in addition to invasive species removal. Use and promote the program as an opportunity for property owners to learn about our native ecosystems and how to restore them, for eventual application on their private properties.
- Commit to the exclusive use of native vegetation in Saanich Parks on a going-forward basis (following the lead of Langford, which outlines this objective (4.6) in their Official Community Plan).
- Ensure operations and maintenance expenses are accounted for and sufficiently resourced when considering new park acquisitions (our on-the-ground parks staff are increasingly stretched thin).
- Raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity conservation, our region’s rare species and ecosystems, and restoration approaches through a concerted education campaign. From my work with the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team Society, I know that awareness of our unique ecosystems and endangered species is quite low. We have a lot of work to do just to build support for the notion that municipalities and residents have a role to play in biodiversity conservation. And when we get there, we should consider a voluntary stewardship program to help equip property owners with the knowledge and the tools necessary to contribute to conserving biodiversity. I recognize the need is urgent, but we’re unlikely to motivate action until more of us understand what is at stake.