GUEST COMMENT: NEDC letter revelation raises more questions

More questions than answers arise from the revelation about a letter from NEDC about council’s handling of Linley Valley West

by JENNIFER O’ROURKE

More questions than answers arise from the revelation that a letter from NEDC about council’s handling of Linley Valley West preceded the abrupt departure of Susan Cudahy as CEO of Nanaimo’s newest economic development organization. (Council scolded by NEDC prior to CEO’s quick exit, June 16.)

The article states that the letter criticizes an open council discussion of “forced downzoning to reduce property values” in Linley Valley West, which NEDC assumed was to facilitate the city’s purchase of privately owned land.

NEDC’s interpretation seems to refer to a Feb. 27, 2012 council motion asking staff to report on funding options for public acquisition of Linley Valley West lands and to invite a legal expert on downzoning to meet with council. This discussion was a follow up to a Feb. 13 presentation by Ben Arseneau and Calvin Sandborn of UVic’s Environmental Law Clinic that outlined legal options available to municipal governments for protecting environmentally sensitive land.

Some questions:

u What information did NEDC use in developing the letter?

Videos from both council meetings record discussions about protecting Linley West, but there was no proposal to downzone, as NEDC claims, to “intentionally devalue the land”. ELC presenters explained on Feb. 13 that zoning as nature park is one option for municipalities to protect environmentally sensitive land, and could require compensating landowners for any loss in value. Both presenters stated clearly that it is not acceptable for a municipality to downzone land with the sole intention of reducing its value prior to public acquisition.

u Why did NEDC focus on what it termed “development land” in Linley Valley West, when NEDC’s website indicates a much broader mandate, “marketing Nanaimo as the place to visit, invest and do business”? Most of the Feb. 27 council discussion of Linley West was about the environmental and recreational value of the area.

u How did NEDC conclude that this particular council discussion threatened developers’ confidence in the OCP as a “committed document that can be waived and redirected at whim”? Where is the evidence that OCP changes typically thwart rather than support development proposals?

Nanaimo’s past and its current governance suggest areas for potential answers.

A mindset that prioritizes development over other community endeavours could be linked to Nanaimo’s history of boom and bust cycles that made consistent planning more difficult, in the face of developer pressures to take advantage of growth spurts. Most cities grow gradually and are able to create appropriate governance as needed.

However, after its 1975 incorporation of six other communities, Nanaimo’s population increased from 15,000 to 40,000 in one day, and expanded the land area from 9.6 square kilometres to 88.2 square kilometres.

Managing a much larger city while ensuring fairness to all areas was likely very challenging.

Minutes from 1975 council meetings show numerous demands for rezoning and infrastructure were rapidly approved with little input from staff, council, or other agencies, such as provincial ministries of environment and agriculture. Parts of Linley Valley West, including property owned at that time by then-mayor Frank Ney (now the Lamont development), were zoned residential during this time.

One cannot ignore the impact of land developer Frank Ney’s 21 years as Nanaimo’s mayor, between 1968 and 1990, in shaping the city with a specific concept of successful growth as land development.

Nanaimo city’s website notes that Frank Ney’s company, Great National Land and Investment Corporation was, “by 1965 … catering to every niche in the local market: residential, commercial, industrial, revenue, and waterfront.” Ney’s “Operation Blacktop” suggests pavement taking priority over forest, farmland, wetlands, and parks.

Nanaimo’s present-day economy has diversified since Ney’s time: the city website reports that construction is the fourth-largest employment sector providing more than 3,200 jobs for eight per cent of the labour force with 1,374 construction firms.

However, an industry with eight per cent of the labour force has significant representation on the NEDC 15-member board, with four people working in business directly related to construction and land development. Four other board members work in financial services, a sector typically involved in financing construction projects and land development.

Recent studies show protecting natural green spaces and environmentally sensitive areas provides a wide range of health benefits for the entire community.

As several Nanaimo councillors stated on Feb. 27, 2012, protecting Linley Valley West will ensure that a unique environment is an important community asset for generations to come.

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Jennifer O’Rourke is spokeswoman for the citizens’ group Team Linley Valley West.