Echo Heights plan takes step forward

After lengthy discussion and pleas from residents, North Cowichan council gave the first two readings last Wednesday to a bylaw that will allow residential development in 20 per cent of Echo Heights while preserving the remaining 80 per cent as a park.

Under the bylaw, the 20 per cent would have room for between 51 and 88 units, ranging from detached homes — some with secondary suites or detached carriage houses — to duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes and a 12-unit townhouse.

The next steps for North Cowichan are to hold an information meeting or open house to present the proposal to residents.

“The public can come in and look at the plan and ask questions of staff and get their heads around the concept,” Mayor Jon Lefebure said.

The bylaw will also go to a public hearing, which is required before the bylaw can go to third reading. The details can still be changed in that time.

“It’s not etched in stone until the fourth and final reading,” Lefebure said.

Before the bylaw was read at last Wednesday’s council meeting, several residents, representing a range of groups, took the opportunity to address council on the Echo Heights issue.

Earl Jack, chief of the Penelakut Tribe, whose traditional territory includes Echo Heights, asked council to preserve the entire tract as a park.

“Let us have the land in place as it is,” he said. “You’ll never find another place like it.”

Jack pointed out that there are houses for sale throughout the Cowichan Valley, and wondered if there was a market for more residential space.

“Who are we going to target for these new houses?” he asked.

Kyle McNeil, an articled student at the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, spoke about the common law doctrine of “dedication and acceptance” under which it could be argued that Echo Heights is a park because it has been used as such for an extended period of time.

“Should council proceed, and that right is proven in court, it could give rise to liability,” McNeil said. “The safest, surest, most conservative course of action would be to preserve the forest as it is.”

Chemainus Residents Association Vice Chair Bernie Jones presented an image of a scale, with the money North Cowichan could raise by selling off part of Echo Heights to developers on one side, and the values of the area — such as ecology, health, tourism and education — on the other.

The value side is losing out, he explained.

“It’s not being allowed to outweigh the money,” he said.

During council’s discussion of the bylaw, Coun. Barb Lines suggested rewriting it so 80 per cent would be protected, and dealing with the remaining 20 per cent later on, but her motion was defeated.