Westward Independent

North Cowichan Rejects New Development Near Hospital, Despite Community Support

by Westward Independent
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West Vista Terrace: A Case Study in North Cowichan’s Development Challenges

Nestled just minutes from North Cowichan’s municipal heartbeat, a stone’s throw away from the new hospital, the West Vista Terrace project emerged in 2020, promising to redefine the local landscape with its vision of 200 residential units and a welcoming hotel off Herd Road.

The development was envisioned to facilitate the needs of the community, and the new Cowichan District Hospital. The architect of this dream, John Lichtenwald, bolstered by a 100-year lease agreement with the Cowichan Tribes, embarked on a meticulous journey to ensure that every step, from conducting artifact checks to securing water infrastructure, was in lockstep with both respects for the land and the highest standards of planning, Additionally, Mr. Lichtenwald reached out to a local Indigenous-led contracting company Ravenstone, whom he was excited to have on board for this large project. The years of waiting on North Cowichan to approve the first shovel in the ground took a toll on Mr.Lichtenwald’s family’s pocketbook and his wife’s physical health. After the Municipality finalized the Official Community Plan (OCP) in 2022, they then began re-drawing urban containment boundary lines, which were meant as ‘boundaries’ within which, almost all future growth was meant to be built.

Image: Artist rendition of the proposed development, outlining both residential and commercial space, pathways, green spaces, and more.

Image: Development would be within 5-7 minutes of the new hospital site, including walkable pathways, promoting North Cowichan’s vision for active transportation and ride-share.

Mr. Lichtenwald’s 30-acre property, originally within a growth area, was suddenly cut out of the Local Growth Area (LGA) and redesignated as a “future growth area”. This arbitrary shifting of the line in question was drawn right down the middle of Herd Rd, a move suggested by Cllr. Justice in a council meeting. The redrawing of the line, striking out the north side of Herd Rd. caused this property, and others on the same side’s value to be cut in half. Many other builders, all over North Cowichan, found themselves in the same situation after the decision, which has led to huge financial losses for the municipality in tax revenue as builders either pack up and leave or never get their projects off the ground.

In 2023 a request was made to Mr. Lichtenwald from the municipality asking for two corners of his property on Herd Road to be handed over for the creation of a roundabout of which he denied the municipality, given the current status of his application.

In the face of mounting challenges, including loan repayments on the land soaring to $100,000 per month—a testament to the unwavering belief in the project’s potential—Mr. Lichtenwald reached out to political figures like David Eby and Doug Routley, seeking support for this innovative, and much-needed, small community plan. The local community’s voice, amplified by a 300-signature petition was presented to council. A presentation to council in late February 2024 was presented by one of the planners who developed the award-winning Bell Mckinnon Local Area Plan, the same one the council accepted a few years before. Yet, the council’s decision over approval of Vista Terrace was deferred once again, this time to March 6th.
This tale of West Vista Terrace, with its unfulfilled promise and the battle against bureaucracy, is a reflection on the balance between development aspirations and the heavy hand of municipal governance that many other builders experience.

Policy Shifts and Political Promises

During the election campaign, candidates like Bruce Findlay and Chris Istace stood out, promising to champion the development community’s cause and streamline processes to encourage growth. Both candidates were fresh faces in the area, bringing new ideas to the forefront of local politics. Councillor Istace voiced strong opinions on housing. As asked of candidates by OneCowichan, “What do you consider the three most pressing issues facing local government and the one most important thing local government should do on each one?” Chris replied, “Housing – Facilitate building of housing immediately and treat it with the urgency it deserves. Remove exclusionary zoning and empower staff to approve new builds quickly and efficiently for developers and residents.” His stance made housing a central issue of the campaign, addressing the community’s need for more inclusive and rapid development processes. Bruce Findlay, in line with campaign promises, swiftly introduced the 24-month amnesty period motion in January 2023. This would have represented a tangible step towards alleviating some of the development community’s frustrations in North Cowichan.

This motion aimed to assist landowners caught in the transition period following the adoption of the new OCP and adjustment of the UCB, enabling them to continue with their development plans under the previous guidelines. The proposal was seen as a proactive measure to support ongoing and planned projects, ensuring they wouldn’t be derailed by the recent policy changes. However, despite the initial optimism surrounding Findlay’s motion, it was ultimately defeated in a 4-3 vote at the council meeting.

The decision not to adopt the 24-month amnesty period was a blow to those who had hoped for a more flexible approach to development under the new council. Among those voting against the motion was Councillor Chris Istace, whose campaign had heavily featured promises of supporting development and reducing bureaucratic obstacles for developers and residents alike. Istace’s vote against the motion served as a stark reminder to the development community of the challenges that persisted within North Cowichan’s political landscape. Despite the fresh faces and promises of change, the defeat of the motion underscored a continuity of the ‘same ole’ cautious approach to development, leaving many to question the council’s commitment to facilitating growth and addressing the housing needs of the community.

The Ongoing Development Dilemma

The development community, still grappling with the constraints imposed by the newly revised OCP and new UCB boundaries, has found little relief. Another example of these new arbitrary lines affected a quaint, 15-unit, Indian Crescent development. Under the scrutiny of council members like Councillor Justice and his strict interpretation of the OCP’s 15-minute accessibility standard—highlighted by his criticism of the proposed development’s lack of proximity to grocery stores, showed an overly rigid adherence to the new planning guidelines. In a time when flexible, innovative solutions are desperately needed to address the housing crisis, the project was considered to be, “Seriously Misaligned’’ according to Councillor Justice, despite being within a stone’s throw of the new UCB lines, and a 10-minute bike trip to the nearest store.

This new approach not only stifles significant development projects but also seems increasingly out of step with the realities of a national housing affordability crisis, which is exacerbating economic pressures on Canadians from coast to coast.

Council Confrontation

The council meeting to debate the West Vista project on March 6th, 2023, saw a full house as residents, neighbours of the proposed build, and Ravenstone Construction came to give impassioned speeches to council in support of the development. Nearly a dozen speakers emphasized the absurdity of the Urban Containment Boundary (UCB) shift—a line in the middle of Herd Rd. The project was poised to generate over $60 million in property taxes by 2050, offer a new hotel, and contribute massively to local infrastructure, yet it found itself at the mercy of bureaucratic gridlock.

During the council meeting, Councillor Debra Toporowski’s recusal stirred the assembly. She explained, “I have decided to recuse myself from this matter, given the impact of the decision on some voting members of Cowichan Tribes. I’m currently seeking Cowichan Tribes Council,” adding to the intrigue, “There may be a perception that I may be influenced in my voting on this matter in an effort to obtain votes from Cowichan Tribes election.” This action, ostensibly taken on ethical grounds, fueled speculation, particularly because of Toporowski’s known voting alignment with Mayor Rob Douglas. The room’s tension escalated as Tek Manhas highlighted this move with a point of order, suggesting to many that Toporowski’s decision was a calculated attempt to navigate the complex political landscape, avoiding a direct stance against Indigenous support for Ravenstone Construction and preserving party cohesion.

Councillor Chris Istace’s comments during the council meeting veered sharply from his campaign trail promises, now favouring government-led housing projects like BC Housing and BC Builds over private developments. By emphasizing a backlog of infrastructure needs and critiquing the financial model of new developments, Istace suggested, “This continual thought that new development is what sets us on the course of being financially secure is ill-conceived.” However, his critique overlooks the standard practice where private developers cover the costs of necessary infrastructure improvements, effectively reducing the financial burden on the municipality. This model not only accelerates community enhancements but also expands the tax base without leveraging existing public funds, a point Istace’s current stance seems to miss.

Moreover, Istace’s focus on maintaining developments strictly within the urban containment boundary, particularly given the minimal geographical discrepancy of projects like West Vista Terrace which sits 6 feet from the new boundary line, showcases a rigid adherence to policy over practical community needs. This rigid stance illustrates a departure from the proactive development stance he previously championed. Istace’s shift towards long-term, government-dependent solutions, while potentially aimed at fiscal prudence, fails to acknowledge the immediate benefits and financial contributions that private development offers to municipal coffers and the broader community.

Mayor Rob Douglas, celebrated for his staunch advocacy of reconciliation and inclusivity, surprisingly chose silence over championing the merits of Ravenstone Construction’s involvement in the West Vista Terrace project. Despite Ravenstone’s team ardently advocating for their role in uplifting the Indigenous community through the development during their speeches to council, Douglas steered clear of this dialogue. He anchored his stance in unwavering policy adherence, highlighting the 2022 Official Community Plan’s visions. Douglas argued, “Proceeding with this application would starkly deviate from our newly established community plan’s vision and policies”, falling back on the tired argument that his decision mirrored the collective will of the community gathered through “extensive consultations for the OCP”.

This discussion brings to light a crucial debate: the council’s reliance on governmental (taxpayer) support for community development under Mayor Douglas’s guidance, which may inadvertently overshadow the vital contributions of grassroots movements like Ravenstone’s. Amid the evolving dialogue around UNDRIP and its addition to the OCP—one must question whether these principles will manifest in real, actionable change. Dan Williams of RavenStone articulated in spring 2023, stating, “This contract is real Economic Reconciliation – something I like to call Reconcili-Action,” He emphasized, “Signing the Memorandum of Understanding to be the main sub-trade contractor on the West Vista project is a real opportunity for an Indigenous company to be a leader in a major development. Even within our own land in the Cowichan Valley, we’ve had to pick up the scraps from other projects. We’ve had to fight for opportunities like this.” It’s initiatives like RavenStone’s that exemplify the type of progress we should champion: the private sector stepping up, engaging directly with its workforce, and fostering opportunities, dignity, and a culture of innovation, removed from the constraints of government dependency.

Despite being within the 15-minute zone, presentation by a professional planner, twenty thousand in application fees, a petition filled with 300 local signatures, the blessings of local First Nations, and a room filled with impassioned speakers, the motion brought forward by Cllr. Caljouw to allow West Vista Terrace to be built was defeated in a tie. The final vote consisted of three (Cllr. Findlay, Caljouw, and Manhas) for the build, and three (Cllr. Istace, Justice, and Mayor Douglas) against.

The West Vista Terrace Reflection

In the aftermath of the West Vista Terrace project’s defeat, North Cowichan offered a refund of half the original application fees, which amounted to a little more than 9 thousand dollars – a gesture insufficient against the project’s years of effort. Cllr. Findlay brought forward a motion to secure a full refund, which was passed, though far from a victory, a mere pittance for what the Lichtenwald family was made to go through for years only to have their vision and dream for an amazing addition to the valley diminished. This series of events, marked by the project’s rejection and the consequential financial impact on the Lichtenwalds, indicates why there is so much skepticism by builders who consider projects in the Cowichan Valley and hear so many similar stories.

*Photo credit to WestVista OCP Amendment Application

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