Levelling the playing field for residents

By David Trotter


In the past six months I've had the opportunity to sit through two very contentious Delta City Council meetings regarding development applications which fell outside of the Official Community Plan. These hearings dealt with the Townhomes planned for 8A in Tsawwassen opposite from SDSS, and the proposed 35 storey tower on 75A in North Delta.

While the projects are very different, the way they have been debated is exactly the same. I saw the same realtors and developers at the hearing in June in Tsawwassen as I did this week in North Delta. The system as it stands is inherently stacked against the local residents and I was left very dismayed by what I heard at these two meetings

 

In general terms, this is how these projects unfold:

  • The Official Community Plan (OCP)  is developed and residents trust that it will be adhered to. This plan outlines what sorts of developments are acceptable in various neighbourhoods in Delta. The residents rely on the OCP to make decisions about where to buy, whether or not to renovate their homes, and whether or not to stay and grow and contribute to the community.
  • A Developer comes to the city with a proposal that grossly exceeds the OCP
  • The citizens of the surrounding area affected by the proposal assume that as the project is so far above what the site is zoned for that the city will dismiss the application 
  • The City works with the developer to fine tune the application and bring that to public feedback sessions 
  • The residents start to worry and realize that the project could be approved so they organize. They write letters, attend sessions, sign petitions, talk to the media, and meet with the neighbours. This is grassroots community involvement/politics at its most basic and is truly our democracy in action. These citizens will be called “NIMBYS” by the real estate industry when nothing could be farther from the truth. The use of “NIMBY” is overused, and often lacks sufficient depth in discussing real issues. “NIMBY” is often used by developers and officials who often don’t want any discussion at all and find it is a great way to limit or end a discussion.
  • In the weeks leading up to the hearing the residents are feeling confident as they have lots of signatures/support and the developer doesn't appear to have the same.
  • Here's where things start to turn against the local residents. Shortly before public hearings the very well financed realtors and developers who stand to benefit from approval of the project spring into action. Real estate companies are some of the best in the world at attracting, maintaining, and cultivating clients, client lists, prospects lists and mailing lists. The financial backing and head-start in organizing they have over citizens who have never done this before makes this an unfair fight. They reach out to this vast and well-financed network and ask them to sign petitions, put their names to form letters to council and show up at hearings to read from talking points. Most of these individuals have little actual interest in the development. The talking points are always the same. The developer is doing this to provide “affordable housing to young people and seniors” and to allow our citizens to remain in the community they love. The wording used by speakers this week in North Delta was down to the word exactly the same as what was used at the hearing regarding the Tsawwassen project in June. 
  • The public hearing happens and the "yes" side and the "no" side appear to be evenly split.
  • The "yes to development" side is heavily made up of realtors/developer and citizens who are reading from real estate talking points given to them extolling the virtues of the project. It is important to note that not all of those on the "yes" side fall into these categories as some are undoubtedly genuine, however many are not. 
  • Based on what looks like a 50/50 split between yes and no speakers, the amount of time the City has already spent with the developer, and the desire to provide more housing in Delta, council approves the application. 

These applications are gross violations of the official community plan. Its key that to remember that the OCP is relatively new at 5 years old and was put together through extensive consultation. The residents have the right to expect that the OCP will be adhered to until it is amended. The word "official" is right in the title! The challenge has been that these requests for a variance have been so astronomically outside of the vision of the OCP that they should be dismissed by the council and city staff. The developer should be tasked by the city to come back with a plan that challenges the OCP, but doesn’t obliterate it – this project on 75A obliterates it and sets a terrible precedent. 

it is the job of council to level this playing field so that the residents aren’t at such a vast disadvantage in these public hearings. A group of neighbours who have never fought this sort of battle up against an industry that does this for a living and knows all the buttons to push is not what these hearings should be about. It falls to the council to make sure they separate truth from marketing fiction 

The real estate industry is well aware that citizens will only become involved if the proposed project directly affects them. I myself am guilty of that. I wasn't that concerned until townhomes were being built on my street in a single family neighbourhood. After these projects are approved, the residents generally either accept in move on, or decide to sell and move out. The real estate industry knows that on the next project, its an entirely new set of residents, most of whom have no experience with respect to the fight they are entering into. Its the classic David vs Goliath scenario, and Delta City council helps Goliath in these cases, not David

Most Delta residents groups are not anti development at all. We understand the need to provide housing alternatives. We simply ask that council give the opinions of the local residents that these projects affect considerably more weight than the supporters of a well financed development and real estate industry. Alternatives to gross changes to the OCP must be considered. I believe the resident around the 75A project would have no objection to a 6 storey development as covered by the OCP in that scenario

Two things need to happen:

1. All speakers at public hearing must disclose what their interest in the property under discussion. City Council needs to do a better job at determining if realtors are stacking these meetings with individuals who have absolutely no interest in the property

2. Delta residents need to speak with a more united voice. Residents groups exist in several different parts of Ladner, Tsawwassen, and North Delta. Most of these groups are focused on one project that directly affects them. This plays right into the hands of the development industry who are united, well financed, and now how to work the system. I would encourage the various Delta groups to work together, either informally or formally, so that we can provide a response to the development lobby that levels this very unfair playing field. It has been a great pleasure to meet individuals from the various residents groups over the past six months. I hope that in the next six months we can unite and have the voice of the existing residents given the weight it deserves at City Hall

 

David Trotter is a Tsawwassen Resident. David has 30 years of executive experience in the the tech sector and has enjoyed playing bagpipes with the Delta Police Pipe band for the past 15 years

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