MacDuff’s Call: We should be protecting Alouette River watershed first

Why is Maple Ridge council is willing to risk so much for so little?

(THE NEWS/files)                                The Alouette River Management Society opposes a development near 240th Street that’s in the floodplain.

(THE NEWS/files) The Alouette River Management Society opposes a development near 240th Street that’s in the floodplain.

When I had the privilege of serving as a city councillor for Maple Ridge, I was introduced to the Alouette River Management Society as its liaison to council.

Through that, I gained a fuller understanding of the organization’s work and the passion for the Alouette. I found that in alignment with my values.

Therefore, when I opted to not run for council, I asked if I could join the ARMS board of directors. Luckily, the answer was yes.

Five years later, I am entering my second year as the president of ARMS and I believe I have accumulated a healthy dose of passion for the work that it does in its mission of protecting and enhancing the Alouette River watershed, as well as an understanding of the challenges of such in the face of human encroachment.

I have also had it re-affirmed to me that if it wasn’t for organizations like ARMS, our community would not be able to retain the level of outdoor beauty we are blessed with.

But not everyone sees it that way.

A classic example of this just played out last month, when both city staff and the majority of council ignored official community plan policies that are intended to protect the watershed through the application of low density provisions within it, and cobbled together a case to justify giving the go-ahead to a development that is four times the permissible density in an environmentally sensitive and active wildlife corridor area, situated within the Alouette River floodplain.

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Anyone paying attention over the last two months of the widespread flooding that is becoming commonplace throughout the country, and the ongoing discussions of the negative impact human encroachment is having on all other species as we take over their habitat, has to wonder why any city would entertain an application to densify in a floodplain and an environmentally sensitive area.

Yet, that is exactly what our council did.

According to councillors when speaking to the issue at the council meeting where they gave third reading, the main reasons they forwarded the 26-lot subdivision were: the city will get conservation land donated and public access to the riverfront; the hydrology report determined the development plan addressed the flood threat; houses were going to be built there anyway, so the city might as well get something by increasing the density; and, by allowing the urban subdivision, the developer can now afford to tie the homes into the sewer system, as opposed to having individual septic fields, which were considered not good for the environment.

The councillors are somewhat correct in their conclusions, as the rationale provided by staff and the developer’s reports led them to land on those conclusions.

ARMS, and many others provided challenges to all of the assertions that council based its decision on. But at the end of the day, council opted – in a 4-3 vote in favour – to rely on the developer’s and staff’s reports, and not public opposition.

When taking a closer look at the benefits, which were valued by staff at $4.1 million, it is hard to fathom how council could feel confident that the city is getting good value.

Why is council willing to risk so much for so little?

The majority of the $4.1 million benefits were based on a three-acre parcel the developer was donating as part of the density provision, and on which staff had placed an estimated value of $3.6 million.

ARMS had challenged the estimate. An ARMS’ member took the time to visit B.C. Assessment and within 20 minutes he was able to find two properties in the same area that were larger than the three-acre site in question and both properties were valued significantly lower — a 4.32-acre property estimated at $1.202 million and a 5.69-acre property estimated at $1.286 million.

At the time of council’s decision, staff admitted that it was a preliminary estimate and would provide the true value later – after third reading was approved.

The reason it is important to understand the benefit component of the density bonusing provision is because, without it, this development would not have been allowed.

Therefore, in the face of going against public opinion, at minimum, the benefit should exceed public expectation, which this development does not, when taking the time to fully investigate it.

Looking closely at this deal, which ARMS has done, the public got the short end of the stick and the developer and the 26 luxury homeowners are the winners — that is unless there’s a flood.

Yet, here we are, densifying in the floodplain, disrupting wildlife corridors and environmentally sensitive land in an area we don’t even need for housing, based on our Official Community Plan.

Common sense seems to have left city hall.

Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and citizen of the year, and

currently president of ARMS.