The Citizens’ Agenda: Squamish Speaks

Editor’s Note: Before the elections, I asked readers to send me questions and comments about civic issues they would want the next council to focus on. Readers wrote back with questions, comments, and suggestions and helped me compile this list of top ten issues the next council should focus on.   

1. Waste of taxpayers’ money

With 94 inches of rain every year, Squamish is one of the wettest places in Canada. Would you build a gym outside in this weather? District of Squamish did, using $48,789 of the taxpayer’s money. There are no directions or instructions to this outdoor gym and no one knows how much it is used. We also gave $65,000 to a consultant who first gave us Epic and then Hardwired for Adventure. Now, there is an additional cost of replacing and installing new way finding signs. In 2013, despite a big tax increase the year before, the district spent thousands of tax payers’ dollars on organizing thinly-attended events such as Cinema under the Stars and the Night Market. And of course, the Oceanfront, with millions to consultants and lawyers, is the crowning glory. Then, there is the trucking trip that costs $350,000 a year.

Solution:

Set specific, measurable targets on public spending. Focus on the core. Fewer consultants please.

2. The Oceanfront

Squamish Oceanfront, once fondly called a gem by locals, has become an allegory of bureaucratic delays, nepotism, and petty small town politics. Although a novella can be penned on the intrigues of the Oceanfront, a very short history is that this albatross has been passed from one neck to another for over a decade now.

Along this journey, council made a lot of consultants and lawyers happy as a debt of $11.5 million piled up. Now, Newport Beach Partnership Ltd-a joint venture between Matthews Southwest and Bethel Lands, will smile all the way to bank as they ink a lucrative deal to develop the Oceanfront. But what is troublesome is that the developer chosen by Oceanfront was also at one point the director of SODC, a fact the present council conveniently forgot to mention.

The sale and agreement deal is also riddled with problems, charges Coun. Ted Prior. While the developer gives $15 million, district also also pitced in $5 million with the land for the park.  The district has left the potential benefits vague and the tax payers may be on the hook for services.

 Solution: Provide more clarity on the benefits to Squamish. Tell us who else was interested and what they were offering so we can rule out favouritism and nepotism. Be upfront about what infrastructure cost we will have to bear and what the benefits will be to us.

 3. Housing

Squamish rental market continues to operate at near zero per cent vacancy rate, according to Michael Roblin of Dynamic Property Management. Demand is high and it’s coming from both locals and new people coming from Lower Mainland to make Squamish their home.

As the supply for affordable housing and rentals diminishes, it inevitably leads to an increase in rental prices. According to National Household Survey (2011), 36.4 per cent of Squamish households pay more than 30 per cent of their household total income towards shelter cost. That is higher than the BC proportion of 30.3 per cent.

Squamish households also pay an average monthly shelter cost of $1,405, which is $249 more than what the average British Columbian pays for shelter cost. The rental vacancy in town is still close to zero with some going to bidding wars. At the Riverstone affordable housing unit, there are 60 people on the waitlist, while 68 senior individuals and couples currently looking for a spot to open up at Cedars and Manors.

Solutions: Create strong affordable housing component in the Oceanfront Development. Make affordable housing central to a developer’s community amenity contribution. Give incentives to developers who have the social conscience to provide affordable housing (example: The spiritual centre planned in downtown Squamish). Encourage secondary suites where possible. Act on the affordable housing framework study. Don’t just study the topic to death.

 3. Zoning and Land Use issues

Kelly Jian is trapped in an in-between world of zoning. Jian owns a heavy equipment repair shop on Paco Road, a strip of land zoned residential in the 90s without much consultation. Although he’s grandfathered in, he can’t make any additions or change the footprint of the building. In downtown Squamish, a tattoo shop on Second Ave has also existed in a limbo waiting for a business licence the district refuses to grant them. Although they are a service-based business, the Second Ave shop they rent is zoned light industrial. Swept by the real estate craze, the district has zoned hundreds of acres of industrial land to residential, which means ever shrinking space for manufacturing or other light industrial building. And no one has explained how gyms and pet food stores are conducive to a business park where light industrial businesses operate. Now, developers want the district to change zoning in the Cheekeye fan to make for a development despite landslide risks.

Solutions: Keep public safety, environment sustainability, and job creation in mind when application comes forward for rezoning. Rezone residential land to industrial on Paco Road. Sort zoning on Second Ave and Business Park. Give a good hard thought to the rezoning application for the Cheekeye fan, where a possible landslide poses a threat to public safety.

 

4. Economic Development   

Last year, the District of Squamish spent $300,000 of taxpayer’s money on economic development. What did we get in return? To use a phrase beloved by bureaucrats, it’s a work in progress. Did our overall tax base grow because of economic development? How any new businesses moved here because of EDO and where are they. Dan Mcrae, the economic development officer, told the Reporter at least five businesses moved to town because of the efforts of his EDO, but he wouldn’t name even a single one. Last year, pink bike, a mountain biking website, announced its plans to move to Squamish but seems to have shelved them. Does the EDO know, has the company been approached? Is our economic development office working with conjunction with Tourism Squamish to pitch town to investors. How any knowledge based industries business has the EDO been able to bring to town What does the EDO plan to do with Squamish?

Solutions: Create a separate economic development commission and but make sure it doesn’t follow the same fate as the strangely-titled Squamish Sustainability Commission (SSC). Give this new commission a specific objective that can be measured. Avoid vague titles and objectives. Make it sharp and pointed. Don’t politicize the commission.

 5. Taxes

Gripe over taxes is universal, but for a lot of Squamishers property owners, tax hikes aren’t an idle fear. The district managed to reduce taxes last year, but in 2012, taxes went up by a 10.2 per cent. Many small business owners like Eivind Thornes, the owner of Shady Tree, were hit thrice: A 15 per cent increase in utilities, a 10.2 per cent increase in residential taxes, and a 10.4 per cent increase in business taxes. “In my 20 years of business here, I’ve never seen such tax increases,” Tornes told the Reporter.

While tax increases result in a political backlash, users fees increases, small and fragmented, often pass unnoticed. In Feb this year, for example, the district increased the fees for grave spaces and other services in the cemetery. District has introduced user fees for special events and increased tipping fees by $10. Recently, it also voted to increase fines. On Sept.2, district also increased the amount of fines it will charge its bylaw violators. Field users have been fighting the district to not reduce user fees, but for how long?

Solutions:

Take a good hard look at what can be done to trim waste at the district. Empower and mandate a city-led economic commission to bring businesses to town. And to slightly twist a phrase beloved by politicians and bureaucrats: ‘find some bloody efficiencies’.

6. Infrastructure

In January 2010, a 40-year-old pipe burst pipe on Westway Ave, flooding the basement of Guncha Singh and creating mini-craters in his driveway. The flooded street and the ripped open driveway on that morning marked a beginning of a journey for Guncha Singh, one that would make him do the rounds in small-claim courts in Vancouver, and one that would see him return empty handed, tired and angry. But still, the district won’t accept any liability. In the same year, the district’s engineering department recorded massive seepage (as 180 million litres of water) from eroded water pipes in 2010. The district has a pavement management program to rehabilitate district roads in poor condition. In 2013, the district paved 13 roads but many more remain to be completed. Bailey Street, a crucial tourism artery to connect the West Coast Railway Park to downtown Squamish remains unpaved. A 2012 report on Brennan Park Recreation Centre highlighted a backlog of work that needs to be done to make recreational facilities attractive and viable. It will take $1 million to deal with odour issues at the Waste Water Treatment Plant. There are reports that asbestos has been found in some pipes.

Solutions: Keep infrastructure on top of the council agenda. Organise Movies under the Stars all you want, but don’t forget the core—roads, sewer, water, fire dept.

7. Public Safety

Squamish is ‘geology on steroids’, according to Hughes Clarke, a researcher with the University of New Brunswick.

Prof. Clarke, along with his students, stayed for five months in Squamish in 2011 to study turbidity currents triggered by underwater landslides on the Squamish delta. He told Reporter the Georgia Strait will protect us from a Tsunami, there are other hazards Squamish needs to be aware of, be it the possibility of flash foods or wildfire. The district has done some commendable work on improving flood infrastructure and is currently updating its flood hazard management plan, a document that should have been updated sooner than it was. District also needs to be careful when it comes to rezoning property in Cheekeye fan for development. There are 260 homes currently exposed to debris flow hazards and there is potential for more than 230 residential units to be built in an area of significant hazard threat.

Solutions

Think twice before you allow more residential density in Cheekeye fan and expose an unsuspecting public to more hazards. Act on all recommendations of a wildfire report conducted by consultants a few years ago. Do away with the “we will deal with it when it happens” attitude at municipal hall. Produce a well-hones contingency plan for disaster scenarios.

8. Sustainable development

The word sustainable carries with it an aura of superficial cool, but we need sustainable as our guide to development in Squamish as we move forward. Take just three major developments that will test our commitment: LNG, Cheekeye Fan and Cheema lands in the Highlands. Much work needs to be done by the district to assure the public LNG isn’t a safety risk. At Cheekeye, there is a proposal to develop 750 homes on land that is under threat from a potentially devastating landslide. And in the Garibaldi Highlands, a private developer wants to remove the population cap to develop lots.

Solutions

Don’t just let Smart Growth principles be just principles. Council should test those principles against development proposals for areas where natural hazards are high or there is an extra cost to the tax payers in services.

Regional transit

Squamish council has done some proactive work in local transit, introducing a new Tantalus route and increasing weekend and evening times, but more work needs to be done for regional transit. There have been some private initiatives. Last year, two Powell River entrepreneurs proposed a fast ferry they hoped would reduce the commuting time to Vancouver. And Eduardo Torres is trying to make a go of his private business with his commuter van to the city.

Solutions

We have to come to terms with the fact that we are a commuter town and commuting is a fact of life in Canada. Council should work with private providers seeking to improve service, perhaps by way of specific incentives, while working with the province for a solution that involves the provincial government.