Trust is the very basis of a democracy; without it our political institutions are a sham.
North Cowichan municipal council faces a decision this Wednesday that will, once and for all, determine whether the majority on council actually understand the trust voters place on elected officials to act on behalf of the entire community.
Councillor Rob Douglas, I am told, has proposed action, that if passed, could arbitrarily lead to taking away property rights from a landowner. Staff would be instructed to prepare bylaws to down zone a piece of property along the TransCanada Highway from its current legally designated use for a manufactured home residential area to A2 agricultural zoning which allows only one primary residence to be built on the 23-acre property. Hasn’t council heard about the shortage of affordable homes in Cowichan?
Is this legal? …it is. Is it ethical? That is another question. Should property owners have a reasonable expectation that they can purchase a piece of property and use it according to the zoning attached to the property? I would argue that the public should be able to trust they can engage in normal, legal activities on land they own without being stopped cold, with no notice, with no compensation, …all because a majority of council members have a hidden agenda.
Merriam-Webster defines trust as “a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship”.
What makes this all the more troubling is that North Cowichan is in the middle of an Official Community Plan (OCP) review that many observers believe has a pre-determined outcome, that there is very little trust that council will listen to the public.
These review processes usually involve extensive public engagement, giving the community multiple opportunities to provide input, to debate and discuss and ultimately buy-in to an updated view of how the community can grow and accommodate new residents and new employment opportunities.
The COVID pandemic has sidelined that process and left us with digital and virtual Zoom involvement. Digital and virtual is better than nothing but it certainly does not ensure the community can reach an understanding of what is being proposed for updating the OCP or are even aware that an OCP is under review. These circumstances should argue for extra care by the politicians to ensure the community is actually involved. I believe the community trusts that their elected politicians will make the extra effort to ensure there is buy-in to the OCP which is the most important policy document any community has – it sets out how and where the community can evolve.
This initiative by Douglas telegraphs very clearly that there is a faction on council that has already decided what they want the updated OCP to say, and that they don’t want reasonably priced manufactured homes built, and certainly not at the location along the TransCanada Highway where it is currently perfectly legal to do.
Community planning can be a messy process with widely divergent opinions on what can and should be accommodated. Planning is the most powerful tool a community has, and it is essential all members of the community determine the outcome, not just some insider group that manipulates the process behind closed doors.
North Cowichan recently went out to the public with an online survey that asked participants to rate three basic options for community growth as part of the OCP review process. The graphics were excellent, but the survey questions aimed at multiple choice answers. Planning is complex and cannot be captured through the answers to multiple choice questions.