Many ideas will be brought forward at the public open house on Jan. 31, Van Hemert tells Lake Cowichan council. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette)

VIDEO: Where is the Town of Lake Cowichan going? OCP open house wants your input

An ‘uptown’ and a ‘downtown’? More affordable housing? Water access? What does Lake Cowichan need?

Tomorrow, (Thursday, Jan. 31), Lake Cowichan residents will have the chance to learn about and comment on their new Official Community Plan.

It’s an open house called “Creating Our Future, at Centennial Hall starting at 4 p.m. and running to 8 p.m. It’s a drop-in and chat format, so residents can fit a visit into their own schedules.

Town planner James Van Hemert and town officials will be there, to answer questions, and explain proposed changes and new ideas that will be shown on big maps.

Van Hemert introduced the proposed new OCP to Lake Cowichan council on Jan. 8, explaining that since the last OCP rodeo in 2011, quite a bit has changed in town.

The library, the wayfinding signage, the renovation of the Cowichan Lake recreation centre, the water treatment upgrade, the Centennial Park upgrades, and the establishment of the memorial garden and columbarium are some of the facilities he listed.

The town’s advisory planning commission has been the facilitator of the plan and the new OCP will provide the platform for “some major bylaw upgrades”, he said, giving as an example, the zoning bylaw, which now includes “state of the art parking regulations”.

The proposed subdivision works and services bylaw is also “a really good powerful working document now,” Van Hemert said.

The provincial Local Government Act gives the town the authority to set up and act on the plan, which lists a vision for a healthy sustainable community that exists in harmony with the natural environment, enjoys a balanced economy, and supports all generations while supporting diverse social needs, he said.

“We’re looking at approval of this within the next two months. The process is very different from the last go-round. [Previously] the APC was almost the sole engine of putting all the words together and deciding the policy direction before it went to council: not a lot of public engagement. This time they wanted a much more robust process, so they got three working groups together, we’ve met six times and we’ve already had one major public open house and workshop. Over 50 people attended that, and there’s one more coming.”

That session is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 31.

This citizen-led approach makes sure more voices can be heard, and the plan will be reorganized into three broad categories: natural environment, social environment, and the built environment.

“The built environment includes what kind of design you want to see in the commercial area, social includes housing and recreation, natural environment is fairly obvious but includes our water, greenways: all these pieces that this community values so highly.”

So far, there has been broad support for a full range of housing, and more downtown character.

“People love buildings close to the sidewalk where people can gather, not big parking lots in front of buildings. The Country Grocer building is an outstanding example. Another building that has gone through similar guidelines is the new vacation rental across from Tim Hortons. That property was rezoned for vacation rental purposes; it’s our first vacation rental. It went through our development permit guidelines for downtown character. It’s encouraging to hear about the businesses speak[ing] positively about these guidelines,” Van Hemert said.

“Ecological protection was one of the highest ranked issues in the open house meeting [last year], and that’s reflected in the updated policies in the plan,” he pointed out, adding that increased river and lake access, less red tape for businesses, affordable housing for families and seniors, appropriate bylaw enforcement, and more indoor recreation facilities were all important issues brought forward.

These comments are reflected in the updated plan.

Affordable housing of the type people want is in short supply at the Lake, he said.

“From 2011 to 2016 we grew about eight per cent, and the housing stock grew by almost 11 per cent,” Van Hemert explained. “But, household size is decreasing. We’ve seen a lot of residential construction, even more than population growth would expect.

“It is robust population growth. Our median age is just under 50. That’s higher than the B.C. median age but way lower than Qualicum Beach. We still are attracting a lot of young families. But we are also attracting people who are retired, many from the Prairies.”

In the plan, there is more detail in particular about housing.

“Our community has over 80 per cent single detached housing. If you look at B.C. as a whole, especially metropolitan communities, that number is less than 50 per cent. The challenge we face is that choices like town houses or condominiums, duplexes, are simply not available to people. There’s a really keen interest in expanding the range of housing styles in the general market. That’s now promoted more clearly in the plan.”

One of the more unusual ideas found in the proposed OCP is the idea of splitting downtown Lake Cowichan into two distinct areas.

“We put this out to the citizens: should we have this kind of downtown? Or is it of benefit to have two clearly defined areas? Downtown [east of the car bridge] would be where most of the everyday services are located and the uptown [west of the car bridge] would have facilities like the library, and more tourist oriented things. We have provided more information on the maps,” he said.

A large selection of maps is included with the plan. They are colourful and updated and clearly indicate some of the areas for possible zoning, such as the employment lands: the new name for industrial zoning, planned to allow a broader range of uses so as to encourage investment in Lake Cowichan and provide jobs for residents.

Some of them are big blocks that have previously been zoned strictly residential.

“They’ve been changed to comprehensive development now, and not just because of a focus on employment but because they would be just another big block of housing that would not necessarily add to the community in the core area. That’s a major shift in this plan,” Van Hemert said.


Town council listens with interest to planner James Van Hemert talk about the new official community plan. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette)

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