COLUMN: Participation brings about solutions

participation and ensuing knowledge will eventually build a more knowledgeable electorate and engaged community

I love the approach Friends of Pioneer Forest is taking in its effort to protect a 3.2-hectare tract of forest in the city’s highly developed north end.

Instead of waging war on city hall, the community group hit the books and researched everything it could in an effort to bring to light as many facts as possible on the issue.

Turns out the facts are a little confusing. In 1984 the province sold all of the land at May Bennett Pioneer Park to the city for $1 with the condition that the property be used for public recreation. In 1996 the city subdivided the land into two parcels, the sports fields and Pioneer Forest, with the Crown grant still intact.

In 1997, the city sold Pioneer Forest to the school board for $800,000 as the school board had an interest in building an elementary school at the site. At the time, the Minister of the Environment cancelled the Crown grant on the forested property to allow for educational opportunities, in this case a school. It was never built.

The problem is cities aren’t legally allowed to sell land designated as park. Now the school board has asked the city to redesignate Pioneer Park, which could pave the way for development.

What has confused the issue further is last summer the city introduced a sweeping new zoning bylaw that updated virtually all of the properties within city limits to new zoning. A few properties were missed or overlooked. Pioneer Forest was one of them.

Currently, nobody is too sure what the triangular, wooded piece of property is supposed to be zoned because it can’t be parkland if the city doesn’t own it, but Friends of Pioneer Forest know one thing: they don’t want any potential for it to be developed.

It is, after all, one of the few tracts of forest left in the north end, and it is used considerably for dog walkers, runners, walkers, nature lovers and seniors.

Friends of Pioneer Forest recognize this, as well as the fact more and more people will be moving to Nanaimo’s north end in the future. The group knows newcomers will also want a natural oasis in an otherwise overdeveloped section of town and they want to see it stay that way.

In Nanaimo, as with virtually any other community in Canada, development is running rampant. A sea of roofs is forever encroaching into what was formerly woodland or farmland. Monster homes are springing up along lakefronts, rivers, bluffs and forests. Wetlands are being filled in and paved over. Ecosystems like Garry oak or coastal Douglas fir are being bulldozed to make room for roads or homes, and riparian setbacks are forever being reduced.

It’s hard to blame already overwhelmed city councils for these developments. People want them, and developers want to build them. As we’ve seen recently in debates over Linley Valley West, city councils have little if any right to tell private property owners how to use their land.

The swell of development isn’t just in the applications of developers, it is virtually written into law. The ice is tilted in one direction and one direction only.

That’s why it was refreshing to see Friends of Pioneer Forest take on its own cause. City councils everywhere are already overwhelmed, and they have little armament to defend against development.

The group coughed up its own money, sought funding to hire an environmental lawyer, and is pursuing the issue to defend what it deems important.

It would be great to see that in every neighbourhood. At some point, people must defend what they love, be it a stream, a bluff, a rivulet, or even a species, on their own by gleaning the necessary information, and, in some cases, paying for it.

The participation and ensuing knowledge will eventually build a more knowledgeable electorate and engaged community, and thus a stronger future for Nanaimo.

Our city and the environment are worth the effort.