HometownShowdown_250.jpg

HometownShowdown_250.jpg

Cumberland resident Kate Greening stands on her front lawn next to a billboard-sized sign that reads, “OCP Not For Sale", an emblem to this hometown showdown.

“I was the first one to put up a sign like this. I wanted everyone to see it as they drove into town,” she explains as a trickle of traffic rolls past on Cumberland Road. Cumberland was once a town with a plan worth the paper it was written on. At the time of its creation, Cumberland’s official community plan (OCP) was a model of participatory democracy, the result of hundreds of kitchen and town-hall meetings that enjoyed remarkable public involvement from this Vancouver Island town of around 2,800. When the process was complete and the OCP was adopted by village council in 2004, the consultants had produced an impressive document that specified where and how Cumberland would grow; what land would be zoned commercial, industrial and residential; and how the buildings would appear aesthetically – all in the interest of preserving the unique heritage feel of this old coal-mining town while diversifying its meager tax base. Sure, there was plenty of debate and some people only grudgingly accepted the outcome; however, it seemed the impossible had been achieved: a general consensus on managing growth and development. It’s no laughing matter achieving consensus in a place like Cumberland, affectionately referred to as “Dodge.” Except for the main drag, Dunsmuir Avenue, gravel back lanes abut potholed streets without sidewalks, and laundry flutters on clotheslines in front of heritage homes in varying degrees of restoration or dilapidation. It’s a place founded on the fortunes of coal baron Lord Robert Dunsmuir back in 1888, and although the last mine shut four decades ago, a company-knows-best mentality still persists in some circles. It’s not uncommon for a third- or fourth-generation Cumberlander, whose father, uncles and grandfather worked in Dunsmuir’s mines, to half-jokingly refer to a 20-year resident as a “goddamn newcomer.” Recently a youthful mix of artists, musicians and professionals have flocked to Cumberland from “the city” for the affordable housing and the intimate, authentic heritage feel of the village. The town has the kind of aesthetic charm over which planners lose sleep trying to conjure or contrive elsewhere. Getting these two solitudes – old mining families and newcomers – to sit down in a room, agree on the nature and form of development and hammer out an OCP was a major coup. However, three years after the ink dried on this weighty tome and one municipal election later, Kate Greening and scores of other citizens belonging to the Cumberland Residents’ Association will tell you the plan has the punch of a librarian. Where did this marvel of democracy go off the rails? Some blame their own council and the arrival of Trilogy Properties Corp., the renowned Vancouver-based developer behind the chic Opus Hotel in Yaletown and the award-winning University Marketplace at UBC. Founded in 1990 by former Intrawest developer John Evans, Trilogy has since left its mark on the cityscapes of Vancouver and Whistler. In 2005, after property prices had spiked considerably in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley, Evans cast his gaze toward cash-poor but land-rich Cumberland – specifically at a massive 309-hectare chunk of land within village boundaries surrounding the strategic Cumberland exit from the Inland Island Highway. It’s no surprise that Trilogy saw gold. From the ancient Roman Empire to the modern-day Fraser Valley, highway crossroads have always been nodes of commerce. That’s why, back in the mid-1990s when the asphalt was being laid for this four-lane expressway, Cumberland’s astute political minders refused to join other Island communities in signing an MOU prohibiting development at highway interchanges. In 2002 Cumberland cemented its designs on this coveted chunk of turf when it annexed the land as part of a village expansion that tripled its land base. In 2005 Trilogy took out an option to buy the property, the company’s first play on Vancouver Island. Why? It’s simple, says Evans: “The Comox Valley is the most amenity-rich place in British Columbia right now.” The attentions of a respected Vancouver development firm immediately caused a buzz in Cumberland pubs and coffee shops. However, it soon became clear that something was amiss. The problem for some locals was that Trilogy’s emerging vision for the property barely resembled the vision Cumberland citizens had spent six months and thousands of volunteer hours forging into a road map for future development. Trilogy would soon ask for major amendments to the OCP to allow for residential housing on land zoned as commercial or working forest. Last February Trilogy had its wish granted by council, in spite of an obstreperous public hearing on October 28 of last year, during which 91 per cent of the speakers, 781 signatures on a petition and 195 letters objected to the OCP amendment. So much for grassroots democracy. For many locals who poured heart and soul into the OCP, it has become exactly what they feared – not worth the paper it’s written on. There’s nothing illegal or even untoward about what Trilogy is asking for; OCPs are amended and changed as casually as people change shirts. Trilogy says it needs to sell house lots along with commercial space to pay for up-front servicing costs, whereas the vision laid out by citizens in the OCP explicitly targeted the interchange for commercial and retail, while directing residential development toward the existing village core. That way, Cumberland’s central historical core would be maintained, the tax base would be boosted by lucrative commercial ratepayers situated at the strategic highway intersection and Cumberland wouldn’t be saddled in the future with suburban sprawl that eventually becomes a municipal tax burden when infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Now the homemade signs have gone up on the front porches and lawns of Cumberland: “Impeach Cumberland Council,” and “OCP Not For Sale.” Citizens who either took part in creating the OCP or supported the final result are crying foul, saying the spirit of public participation and democracy has been compromised, and accusing village council of folding like a pup tent to the whims of a flashy big-city developer. To the outside observer, however, Cumberland’s is a story of what happens when lofty dreams of public participation in civic planning get dashed upon the cold, hard pragmatic realities of town politics and urban development. To understand this all-too-familiar battle between small-town citizens and a savvy developer, it’s best to pop the cork on the politics that brought Cumberland to this crossroads. A good place to start is with planning consultant Dale Bishop, who can only shake his head when he looks at what has become of the OCP he was hired to help create. “I saw an opportunity to do an OCP the way it was meant to be, with a large amount of public participation. The scale of Cumberland presented a unique opportunity for a planning approach that we had talked about for years,” says the former Vancouverite. Ever since his idealistic days as a student at the University of Michigan back in the 1960s, Bishop had dreamed about a planning exercise that would be guided by the people and for the people, a process in which planners would play the role of facilitators instead of ivory-tower professionals dispensing wisdom to the citizenry. Cumberland was an ideal place to put his vision into practice. Not only was the village manageably small in population, but voters had just recently elected a council that was all female, except for mayor Fred Bates, and particularly progressive and green-minded. Bishop and his colleague Lou Varela scored the planning contract and got started in 2003. Counterintuitively, for the first six months they did no actual planning. Instead they facilitated the formation of three task forces to deal with economic, social and environmental issues. “We wanted to first build a common knowledge base about the community,” Bishop explains. Rather than use the dry jargon of academic planning, the “knowledge” would be documented in the folksy language of locals. For example, volunteers sitting on the economics task force wanted to find out where the money came from in town, how much the village collected in taxes and where it was spent. So they sent a questionnaire around to residences, local businesses and the village office entitled “Where’s the money, honey?” When the task force published the results of its work, it was written in equally homespun vernacular. For example: “In 2002 the Village’s take-home pay was just over $1.7 million and, just like home, we spent it,” it states. “We had 45 very intelligent people sitting on these task forces. People were reluctant about the process at first, but, when they realized that we weren’t trying to use anybody, they got excited about it. They took ownership of the process,” Bishop says. After the task forces published their respective tabloids, the community engaged in what Bishop calls “a conversation about character.” During 55 kitchen meetings, attended by anywhere from four to a dozen people and including everyone from third-generation Cumberlanders to so-called “newcomers,” citizens discussed form and function. From these casual, informal and potentially divisive meetings, citizens started to distill consensus. For example, someone would say, “I don’t want another Nanaimo out there at the interchange.” After further discussion, it would emerge that what the person actually objected to was not so much the concentration of auto dealerships and large retailers but rather their appearance – the kilometre after square kilometre of asphalt and generic construction with little or no green space. [pagebreak] Slowly a coherent vision started to emerge. Generally people wanted to preserve Cumberland’s small-town ambiance and prevent sprawl, while also expanding and diversifying the town’s tax base. Roughly speaking, residential development would be contained within a boundary that would preserve the quaint central feel of Cumberland’s historical centre, while commercial and light industrial development would be restricted to lands within village boundaries and adjacent to the Inland Island Highway. After the meetings were concluded, Bishop and Varela went to work condensing the results into a concise one-and-a-half-page document gloriously entitled “The Voice of the People.” “We held three public meetings and asked the people, ‘Did we get it right?’ It was supported unanimously,” Bishop says confidently. Finally it was time to use technical planning skills to translate the “voice” into hard lines on a map, which became the OCP. In June 2004 it was adopted by council and became law under the Municipal Act. The hard cost of the OCP was roughly $150,000, mostly for consultant, administrative and office fees. The real cost in terms of time and emotional investment was much greater: some 2,000 volunteer hours involving 300 residents in more than 200 meetings. Kate Greening is a Cumberland “newcomer,” meaning she’s owned a house there for 20 years. With her business background and legal mind, she naturally gravitated toward the OCP and specifically the economics task force. “It was fairly intense,” she recalls. “We met every Monday for months. In the end, I thought the OCP was a good process. Sure, some people accepted it under protest, but in general the town arrived at some sort of consensus.” That the same mayor who, Greening says, quite enthusiastically endorsed the OCP process, along with the current council, should sell out the OCP to the first big developer to come along is, in her view, unconscionable. She isn’t one to mince words. “Council hasn’t honoured the goal of public participation. Our councillors are used to running the village like their own little fiefdom. Cumberland was always a company town and that mentality still exists,” Greening says. She knows she’ll get her chance to pass judgment. When Cumberlanders hit the polls again in 2008, they’ll have the opportunity to judge the current council’s performance. Grace Doherty is a late-in-life but nonetheless passionate community activist. She has only lived in Cumberland for two years but didn’t waste any time jumping into the political fray. “Political activism was never part of my retirement plan,” says the former public-health nurse while preparing for the annual plant sale that raises money for the Cumberland Community Forest Society. “I see this as a real reaction against the concerns of citizens. Any opposition is seen as people being against progress, and there’s been a constant minimizing and marginalizing of our views. It’s like council had already made up its mind.” As for Bishop, he doesn’t fault Trilogy for its plan. In fact, at face value, he says Evans could probably confidently put it forward for scrutiny in a graduate-school planning class. However, he says it belongs in a Surrey suburb, not in Cumberland. “What does this plan have to do with Cumberland?” he asks. Although he expected more from Trilogy in terms of respecting a community plan, he says responsibility for upholding it ultimately lies on the shoulders of village council. “Cumberland citizens have every right to feel betrayed by their council,” Bishop says. “Council has really abdicated their responsibility in the context of a plan that was created by the people.” It wasn’t always that way. In fact, when Trilogy first publicized its intentions to develop in Cumberland, Mayor Bates was quoted in an August 2005 Vancouver Sun article saying that Trilogy had assured Cumberland that it respects the OCP. “As long as their proposal reflects that, we’ll be fine,” Bates said. In the same news article, Trilogy’s Evans told the reporter he was happy with what he saw in the OCP. So what changed in the last two years? Well, if you ask Evans today, he says market conditions and a greater understanding of the OCP have rendered the plan largely obsolete and in need of refreshing. Reached over the phone at his office in downtown Vancouver, Evans says that some Cumberland locals have unfairly demonized his company. If anything, he says, Trilogy has bent over backward to meet its critics in an open and public manner. Evans estimates that the firm has already sunk more than $1 million into planning and consultant fees, even though it has yet to purchase the property. The goal of putting the first lots on the market this summer has been postponed to spring of 2008 at the earliest. In the meantime, Trilogy continues to jump through planning hoops. “I anticipated that there would be some resistance, but I have been surprised by the reaction. It’s like people have been saying, ‘We don’t want any new people in our town,’” Evans says. The fact is, he says, the OCP was flawed. He believes that, if the proper financial feasibility studies had been done with respect to the 2004 OCP, residents would have realized that it just wasn’t realistic to zone most of the developable land in the 309-hectare piece of property as commercial. The economics simply don’t support it, Evans argues. Up-front servicing costs for such things as water, sewers, electricity and roads are estimated at $20 million for the property, and Trilogy needs residential zoning to pay for them. Evans makes no apologies for asking council to oblige. And that’s exactly what Trilogy got when village council gave fourth and final reading to OCP amendments on February 19 of this year. The amendment changes zoning on 121 hectares (known in planning documents as Lots 2 through 8), allowing for 225 residential units on land formerly dedicated commercial. If some residents are angry now, there may soon be more fuel to further stoke the flames of discontent. If Trilogy gets another OCP amendment for a chunk of land known as Lot 9, the total number of housing units at build-out would be 825, adding an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 residents to Cumberland’s population. Evans is a smartly dressed, urbane and articulate man who clearly enjoys his work and doesn’t mind rolling up his sleeves when the road gets rocky. There’s no doubt Trilogy has done its homework. In glowing language, Evans told a hall full of Cumberland residents last fall that Trilogy plans to build Vancouver Island’s first “lifestyle community.” A bold statement, considering he was speaking to a crowd of people including many who had moved to Cumberland for its uncontrived lifestyle, potholed streets and all. A socio-economic impact study of the development paid for by Trilogy paints a rosy picture: the development would bring anywhere from $4 million to $18 million in additional local tourist spending, as much as 595 person-years in construction employment, $75 million in construction spending, up to $1.8 million in development cost charges that will find their way into the village’s empty coffers and $660,000 in additional annual tax revenue. When asked what he means by a lifestyle community, Evans presses all the correct smart-growth buttons. It’s something that eschews strip-style big-box development in favour of a pedestrian-oriented, mixed commercial-residential strategy, he says, a plan that favours density over sprawl. A place where you park your car and walk into a vibrant mix of boutique stores, mid-sized to large retailers, theatres and hotels, interspersed with above-shop residential neighbourhoods and planned green space. In effect, a livable residential and commercial development, unlike the soulless and barren retail strips that are a blight on many Canadian communities. It’s a laudable goal. The property includes sensitive wetlands and the headwaters of a salmon-bearing stream, and Trilogy claims to be pegging as much as 50 per cent of the land as green space. On paper it presents a reasonably attractive package. In his one major public-relations faux pas during a public meeting last fall, Evans suggested the possibility of a casino hotel at the crossroads. The statement helped further typecast the big-city developer as villain. Casino notwithstanding, in order to execute Evans’s vision of a live-and-work, retail-lifestyle community, Trilogy says it needs housing to pay for services and drive the development. “If I wanted something easy, we wouldn’t have come into Cumberland. I know it’s a hot-button issue because people didn’t envision residential development, but I’m convinced that people will look back on this development and see it as a great thing for the community,” Evans says. [pagebreak] Mayor Fred Bates and a majority of the current council certainly see it as a great thing. And Cumberland, well, to put it mildly, is in a bit of a financial bind. Like a lot of cash-strapped and aging towns, Cumberland, with a budget of just $1.7 million, is currently facing a woeful mountain of sewer, water, road and other public-works upgrades with an estimated price tag of $26 million. Recently, an independent engineering firm conducted an analysis of the village’s waterworks. It concluded an estimated $5 million will be needed to bring existing pipes, valves and water mains up to standards. Evans is on record as saying Trilogy is prepared to make a substantial but undisclosed contribution to much-needed upgrades. The developer has the kind of deep pockets that makes some Cumberlanders salivate. William “Bronco” Moncrief was mayor of “Dodge” for more than 30 years and returned as a councillor in the 2005 municipal elections. He’s made it no secret that he fully supports Trilogy’s proposal; it’s the sort of development and cash injection he’s been waiting to see in Cumberland for ages. And given Cumberland’s untenable financial position, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mayor Bates and council are prepared to roll out the red carpet for Trilogy. Today Bates is lockstep with Evans and singing a somewhat different tune on the OCP. Sure the OCP was a good starting point, but instead of being etched in stone it should be considered something more organic – a work in progress, so to speak. Born and raised in the village, Bates is entrenched in the old Cumberland. His bloodline links him to the village’s heady days as the coal-mining capital of B.C. His father, uncles and grandfather all toiled in the mines. In 1969 Bates left Cumberland to pursue a career in emergency services and then returned in 1990 before being elected to his first term as mayor in 2002. He isn’t fazed by the signs sprouting up like weeds around town calling, somewhat facetiously, for the impeachment of council. He dismisses it as the work of a vocal, but not necessarily representative, faction of residents. He agrees the OCP was a positive experience for the village, however he now sides with Evans in saying it was a pipe dream to think little old Cumberland could attract that much commercial development on the highway. “In order to attract commercial, you have to have rooftops, you have to have customers,” Bates says during an interview at his Cumberland village office. And in spite of the visceral opposition that has erupted over Trilogy’s proposal at public hearings and in the form of petitions and letters to council, Bates says there’s another kind of feedback he listens to as a politician: the casual conversations on the street corner, on a barstool at the Waverley Pub, at a table in Miner’s Deli – those unrecorded chats that don’t show up in council or public-hearing minutes, between people who aren’t prone to going to meetings and signing petitions. “I don’t like to use the words ‘silent majority,’ but there are a lot of people who say this is the right thing for Cumberland,” Bates says. Bates characterizes some of the tactics and public comments of those opposed to the Trilogy proposal as downright rude. So does Evans, although he admits that by necessity developers tend to grow a thick and leathery skin. “It’s been very personal, it’s been rude at times and it’s shown that some people don’t want to listen,” Evans says. Cry me a river, say Kate Greening, Grace Doherty and other members of the residents’ association. As far as they’re concerned, Cumberland taxpayers have been sold out by their council. Furthermore, they argue that what Trilogy is proposing is the antithesis of smart growth in that it promotes suburban sprawl, in effect building an entirely distinct community within the village boundaries that will only detract from historic Cumberland. The result, they say, is that future residents will be left holding the bag for maintaining sprawling sewers, waterworks and roads long after Trilogy is gone. But perhaps what irks them most is that what the Vancouver developer is proposing barely resembles what volunteers spent many afternoons and evenings envisioning during the OCP process. Penny Gurstein is a professor at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. She says public participation, or at least lip service to the notion, is de rigueur nowadays in official community planning processes. In fact the Municipal Act requires villages, towns and cities to update their community plans every five years, although many communities don’t bother keeping to this schedule. Undergoing an exhaustively public OCP process every five years would likely sap the volunteer drive and energy of even the most engaged citizenry. However, some communities have won awards for their efforts, as was the case with Ucluelet, which earned a 2006 UN award for environmental sustainability in its resident-driven OCP. More often than not, however, OCPs fail to meet anybody’s expectations and instead become watered-down compromises that please nobody save for a few influential interests, quite often developers and realtors. Furthermore, in most communities many people wouldn’t know an OCP from an IOU, let alone care whether elected officials tinker with it. That’s what perhaps sets Cumberland apart. Its population is small enough that public involvement transcended the subtle social barriers between newcomers and the established residents, young and old, that often diminish meaningful dialogue over community issues. After suspicion was replaced by enthusiasm, the community arrived at a hard-won consensus around the idea of how Cumberland should embrace the future while preserving the subtle qualities that make it what it is today. As planner Dale Bishop recalls with a chuckle, public ownership of the community plan became so widespread that even apathetic citizens who played no part in its creation were also taking credit for it in the end. Although Gurstein says it’s wrong to characterize the Cumberland story as a battle between “good” and “bad” people, she admits it doesn’t do much to bolster faith in public participation and transparency. “OCPs are very important documents, so this doesn’t say much about the democratic process. It’s a real problem, and that’s why people get very cynical about public participation,” Gurstein says. As for glowing economic impact studies bankrolled by developers, take those with the proverbial grain of salt, is Gurstein’s advice. Villages need to look beyond the analyses of hired guns to the experience of other communities to discern possible impacts. And in the current booming economy and hot real-estate market, examples abound of B.C. towns grappling with the nature, form and character of growth. Four years ago, the creation of an official community plan, brick by brick, bridged social divides and brought Cumberland together. Today its dismemberment at the hands of Trilogy and a malleable council threatens to polarize the village. Back on Cumberland Road, Kate Greening reflects on what may be in store for her town. “I love this town and I’ve always fought hard for it,” she says. Developers are more than welcome, if they want to play by the rules laid out by residents. If not, as far as Greening is concerned, they can stay out of Dodge.