Monday, October 17, 2005

The relationship between bylaws and plans


Over its short history the Province of British Columbia has grown from a pioneer land of plenty where lumber, fish, precious and base metals, and in later years fossil fuels have been the economic base from which towns large and small have grown. Compared to many other regional communities in North America growth has been steady, but modest.

As a community that had its start in the modern era British Columbia, and for that matter Canada, appears to have benefited from cherry picking the apparently good elements of government while eschewing the seemingly negative aspects. Canada has, in a sense, had the advantage of going to school on the mistakes of older communities on the European continent and even political systems less distant, such as the United States.

Whether or not all the choices made by Canada's founding political leaders, venture capitalists and technicians were the right ones or not, are hard to gauge. The fact remains that through daily federal, provincial and local government discourse, the debate over the future of Canada is waged throughout the country formally and informally on the streets, living rooms, and kitchens coffee shops from west to east and north to south. Indigenous peoples and settlers from every era do as all citizens around the world do; they discuss the issues of the day. When words fail, benign or violent action combined with threatening or aggressive language is the last resort.

To some extent informal debate is the incubator for formal debate. At the same time it is reasonable to suspect that formal debate, more often than not, can be traced back to a formal source. For example, a cabinet minister, member of parliament and member of the legislature or any branch of Canada's many levels of government could choose to initiate discussion on an issue which they would like to see debated and perhaps brought into law. An individual within the formal structure of government with enough influence and a good idea may also see his or her idea come alive in formal debate.

Informal debate, for its part, remains the medium of the general public and the electorate. It is stimulated by innovative thought, either conciously or by accident. It is common for instance for informal groups to gather and look for ideas on how society can be improved. Recently government itself, encouraged by canny politicians, has learned to be the instigator in bringing together such groups under the banner of 'government for the people by the people.'

Commonly referred to as 'public consultation' this model is often seen as the safest and most democratic model for getting things done in government. Moreover, the public process provides government officials and politicians a prop upon which to lean in times when critical debate is at its highest pitch, election time. Public opinion, briefly, transforms from informal to formal. A chat over a doughnut and coffee suddenly shows up as a tick or an 'X' mark in a box opposite a candidate's name. No turning back once the candidate has been selected and the ballot is slipped into the box; well not until the next election anyhow. But it may be too late by then; Republicans in the Bush era may wish to reflect on this one day; sooner rather than later, if they get the chance.

Within each grand political structure or mechanism lie all the sub-structures and subsets which enable those unfamiliar with a specific political region to better understand the inner workings and aims of local communities.

Government departmentalizes and compartmentalizes itself for purposes of function, access and comprehension. The public can see how government works, has the ability to access government and therefore is able to learn about and comprehend government. In so doing the public comes face to face with itself as it is the public that is the ultimate arbiter of government. Imagine for a moment creeping around a haunted house looking for some unknown monster and then as you round a corner in a darkened hallway you are shocked to find yourself staring back at you. That is, for all intent and purpose, the truth behind government.

“That is why we should not vote only for any politician who says, for instance, there are no quick fixes more than three times a year. Punish her (or him) for banality and the contempt for us [the voters] that it implies.” So writes Don Watson in Death Sentences, Viking Canada, 2005. Government, perhaps more so in Canada than any other country, with the exception of the United Kingdom from which the Canadian system has evolved, is the in the business of the slow fix. Politicians and staff mandarins see nothing, but benefit slowing the process of government to an imperceptible crawl. To begin with it reduces the chances of making mistakes which may become public knowledge. Second, the longer someone takes to do something which they are essentially responsible for, the longer their tenure and security can be guaranteed. By reminding the public each day at federal, provincial and local levels that, there are no quick fixes our elected and hired officials can sleep soundly each night knowing that a long, but safe road lies ahead of them.

Against this background the current Maple Ridge Official Community Plan is an oddity. Odd because there appeared an urgency in its preparation, and odd because there seemed an eagerness on the part of the District’s elected officials to have the OCP put before council for approval and oddly too, several members made clear their endorsement of the OCP, notwithstanding the protestations over five days by 145 speakers from the public and perhaps over a 1000 emails and letters contesting one or other aspect of the staff-drafted report. Finally, the politicians were persuaded to relent and ask staff for a new report; and a great deal of time in meetings was spent to hammer out what the major complaints from the public were that needed addressing. The results of staff’s report and redrafted OCP proposal will surface in yet another round of public hearings in the spring and early summer of 2006.

While the OCP is designed to project the community into a forecasted future and is based on data and information gathered from professional consultants as well as in-house advisors, it is as well to try to understand in what context the OCP itself is seen. Where does the OCP reside in the context of national, provincial, regional and local landscape? How is it influenced from the structures above it and how does it influence the structures below it? The OCP, without going into any great detail, falls under what is commonly known as the Livable Regions Strategic Plan. Each district in the Province of British Columbia is required to have an Official Community Plan and to revise it regularly to insure that it meets current urban planning practices and is based on newly gathered, assembled and analyzed data.

The OCP is a complex document, to say the least. In some respects it acts as the DNA of the community and deserves the attention it receives. The document provides a wealth of detailed information about Maple Ridge; it would make an excellent candidate for inclusion in the district’s time-capsule as it says so much about Maple Ridge, its fears and its hopes.

The question that still lingers is one that was touched on lightly, often by implication rather than through direct finger pointing. The question is; what certainty surrounds the OCP? Is the OCP purely a guide or is it, to frame it in the words we hear so often set in stone (concrete)? This may seem an innocent enough question, but it is hard to imagine government providing a community plan that is set in stone or one that provides a quick fix. If the public is looking for certainty it would be better off reading the bylaws. The ever-present problem and I expect we will see it this summer is when the public and local government is forced into the arena of public process to debate formally what elements of the OCP are certain and which are not. If we cannot be certain of our plan, why do we have one? If, on the other hand, the plan is a guarantee of certainty set in stone, how will it effect our decisions in the future if it is not flexible? The question of Thornhill springs to mind.

Since the early 1980s the area east of 240th known as Thornhill has been designated ‘urban reserve’ and a target for future expansion of the district. In 2005 this aspect of the OCP does not sit well with many residents of Thornhill as well as other members of the community who favour limiting sprawl and protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve and Green Belt. Some local landowners, developers, realtors and speculators see it otherwise. Their contention is that growth is inevitable and based on the theory of inevitability (all things will come to pass) they had purchased this land in the recent past in the hopes of profiting from its disposal and or development. They base their decisions on the fact that earlier OCPs stated very clearly that Thornhill would one day be a target for new subdivisions to house an expanding population, driven eastward from the Greater Vancouver Regional District as it coped with its own expansion problems i.e. a land deficit.

The fundamental question then is; are we to regard the OCP as a flexible document which makes no promises either way and should not be relied on for speculation? Or is the OCP a mandate for speculators, fixed, as it were, in stone?