Council reviews development set-back policy

NANAIMO – High rate of variance approvals for developers has elected officials concerned waterways aren't being properly protected.

An effort to better understand riparian setbacks and how natural water courses are being affected by development has led city council to initiate a review of its policies.

In 2012, council approved eight riparian variance applications for developers while rejecting only one. In almost all cases, city staff recommended council support riparian variance requests submitted by developers.

Riparian setbacks are in place to help protect fish-bearing streams, rivers and wetlands from being disturbed or negatively affected by development, which has become increasingly difficult as new zoning bylaws allow for greater density and tighter infilling. The province provides guidelines but local government is responsible for variance application approvals or denials.

During consideration of a variance application in December regarding a shed built without permission too close to the setback at Departure Creek in Woodstream Park, council found itself questioning its ability to overrule professional biologists that sign off on variance applications.

“There was some confusion on the part of council because there seemed to be more than we wanted to see regarding applications coming through where a party wanted to vary the riparian setback,” said Coun. Diane Brennan, who is also chairwoman of the the Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability. “One or two of them had applied to be set back to zero metres (the normal setback is 15 metres) and we needed to understand that better because when it was explained to us zero didn’t mean the water’s edge necessarily.”

In some situations, a zero-metre setback means to the edge of a ravine or gully that drops down toward a waterway.

“We weren’t grasping it entirely and we weren’t ready to accept the recommendation of a professional biologist,” added Brennan. “At the same time, we didn’t really have any reason to doubt the reasoning why there could be a variance. Nobody on city council has a background in biology.”

Last September, council put forward a resolution at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention addressing concerns over federal cutbacks to fisheries officers that could affect water courses and riparian areas. The resolution, which passed, called for a reconsideration of those cutbacks through omnibus budget Bill C-38.

Adding to the pressure to protect waterways – some of which are a combination of natural waterways and man-made drainage – is an increase in environmental stewardship groups spending taxpayer money to revitalize and protect fish-bearing waterways within city limits.

By approving a council-directed report provided by staff, council triggered a three-month process that will review the riparian setback variance policy in consultation with ACES, the Development Process Review Committee, and the development community. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provincial Ministry of Environment will also be consulted.

Nanaimo no longer employs an environmental assessor, but the review could result in one being back on the city’s payroll.

“Riparian issues are of such great importance that we have to have the best information that we possibly can,” said Coun. Fred Pattje.

The first phase of the three-phase review will consist of a staff review of the current applications of riparian areas regulation, as well as workshops with stakeholder groups and to gather public input.

The second phase will identify issues and challenges while creating options to address riparian setback policy, and the third stage, set for April, will provide recommendations to council.

The process is supported by the environmental responsibility pillar of the Corporate Strategic Plan.

Coun. Jim Kipp said now is a good time to review riparian policy since it has been more than 20 years since the issue was addressed.

“Back in the ’90s we changed our piping systems and drainage systems and did a phenomenal job to control flooding in Nanaimo,” said Kipp.

“We set some riparian standards that were foremost in the province… I think it’s perfect timing with the advent of new ways of recharging our water systems and filtering our water systems.”