Some residents in the Bell McKinnon Road area are alarmed at what they perceive as threats to their award-winning neighbourhood plan for the area by North Cowichan councillors.
Dave Jackson, who lives across the street from where the proposed new $887-million Cowichan District Hospital is slated to be constructed in the area, said it appears from comments made by a number of North Cowichan council members at a meeting on March 9 that they are looking to delete all or sections of the plan.
He said, based on the discussion, it looks to him like the community planning in preparation for the new hospital has been used as a trick by the Municipality of North Cowichan to bait-and-switch residents in the Bell McKinnon area to accept the new CDH in their community.
Jackson said if council decides to change the neighbourhood plan, Bell McKinnon residents and everyone in the municipality will suffer a serious breach of trust for having presumed that future councils would uphold the integrity of the past municipal planning processes.
“This also creates a serious problem for the leaders and participants of the current Official Community Plan review process,” he said.
“Why should we bother investing our time and energies in planning our future when the final plan will be drawn by councillors following their own value systems? Perhaps before we proceed any further with the OCP review, we need public confirmation from council that our efforts, time and resources are not being wasted.”
North Cowichan began work on the Bell McKinnon local area plan in 2016 after the Cowichan Valley Regional Hospital District selected a site in the neighbourhood as a possible location for a new state-of-the-art hospital to replace the aging Cowichan District Hospital.
The plan was adopted in 2018 by the previous council after a comprehensive community engagement process with North Cowichan staff and decision-makers, stakeholders and service providers, neighbourhood residents, landowners and local First Nations, and it was recognized by the Planning Institute of British Columbia as an example of excellence in policy planning.
After an update by Rob Conway, North Cowichan’s director of planning and building, on the preparations in the neighbourhood for the construction of the new hospital at the meeting on March 9, some councillors took issue with the residential part of the plan.
Coun. Christopher Justice asked Conway, if municipal laws make local area plans secondary and complimentary to the OCP, can new visions and goals to replace those that are no longer considered to fit with an LAP be implemented.
Conway said if a municipal council and community decide to do it, an LAP can be changed.
Coun. Kate Marsh said she likes what is proposed in the LAP in regards to its residential components, but is concerned that in the end, the vision laid out by staff won’t be what North Cowichan ends up with.
“It’s a good idea, but it needs some tweaking,” she said.
“We should really send a message to the development community that we want this to be an excellent development.”
Justice agreed that a beautiful vision for the Bell McKinnon area has been presented, but the growth there is not in context with the rest of the municipality.
“Instead of a beautiful vision, we could end up with another example of leap-frog development sprawl,” he said.
“I get that there will be a new hospital and new development in that area, but I think that planning what will essentially be a new city on agricultural farm land seems ill considered with respect to North Cowichan’s other goals, especially the environmental ones. I’m not advocating that the plan be killed altogether, but we should look at it.”
CAO Ted Swabey said there’s no denying the Bell McKinnon area will be one of the most important growth centres in the region with the construction of the hospital.
He said he doesn’t know of any community where a major hospital was planned that the area around the hospital didn’t become a major density node for the region.
“[The Bell McKinnon LAP] is not a perfect plan and we can pick it apart, but it’s a plan we think is sustainable in what we’re trying to achieve and it’s attracting incredible residential interest in the development of rental housing, and we have a 30,000 sq. ft. medical office building already proposed for one of the lots, and a number of other projects as well,” Swabey said.
“The plan is doing its job. We should be proud of what we have achieved so far and move forward.”
Marsh said she believes if the municipality finds it is going in the wrong direction, it should turn around.
“I have a lot of faith in the OCP committee and they may come back [after the review of the OCP] and say the [Bell McKinnon] plan is way too big and we want something else,” she said.
“I’m content to wait and see what the OCP committee says and follow my conscience at the time.”
Coun. Tek Manhas took exception to Marsh’s comments.
“The premise of what Coun. Marsh is saying is that we have public engagement and listen to people, and if we don’t like what they’re saying, we reject it,” he said.
“That’s what I heard.”