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Every so often, something happens that reveals the power of people standing together to defend the land we love. This month, a collective effort to stop a destructive development on Vancouver Island reached a tipping point and overturned the forces of destruction.
A full year of conflict and posturing led up to last week's public hearing for a sprawling seven-kilometer-wide, 260-home development on the boundary of Juan de Fuca Park, a narrow coastal park west of Victoria on Pacheedaht First Nation traditional territory.
Opposition to the project came from every sector - except the subcommittee that claims jurisdiction over all land-use decisions for the rural area. Four of the five committee members had already declared their full and unqualified support for West Vancouver developer Ender Ilkay's destructive project. What happened next surprised them all.
The public hearing ground on for three nights, a new record for the island. The committee heard from 250 speakers and received 500 submissions, all but a few opposed. We heard testimonials from Sooke, Port Renfrew, Jordan River, Otter Point, East Sooke, Shirley, Victoria, Langford, Metchosin, Sidney, Saanich, Nanaimo, Cowichan, Vancouver, Ontario, even Israel and Belgium. Six members of the Pacheedaht First Nation – including the hereditary chief – drove all the way to Sooke to denounce the project.
The morning after, before the dust settled, word came that committee chair and electoral area representative Mike Hicks had changed his mind. Hicks released a brief statement: "It is clear to me that the vast majority of the Juan de Fuca residents and the residents of the Capital Regional District want the land to remain forest and preferably park."
Within hours, two more committee members followed Hicks and caved in. When the vote came on September 14, it was unanimous: the project was rejected.
This small victory wasn't easy. We forced the balance of power to tilt in favour of the public interest for once. We changed this foregone conclusion through sheer strength of will, because so many people came together with such tremendous commitment. The CRD directors heard us loud and clear, and so did the newspapers, radios, and television.
It wasn't luck that brought us together, either. The developer didn't spend a year talking with Pacheedaht elders about their concerns for the land. The regional planners didn't send 1700 postcards to area residents asking them to give their opinion. The CRD didn't host huge public meetings in Victoria. Local politicians didn't put up billboards on the highway or full-colour alerts with maps and descriptions along the Juan de Fuca Trail. The committee didn't get an independent opinion on whether the project was legal. No, we did all that. And it worked.
But the Juan de Fuca resort proposal is just a symptom of a deeper problem - the big money interests who think they're entitled to profit at the expense of parks and livability. We defeated this proposal. But what about the next one, and the one after that?
Going forward, it's time to bring sanity and the public interest to land-use decisions permanently. We need to:
Almost everyone wants this. So what's the big obstacle?
Development interests are represented by a group called the BC Landowners Assocation (BCLA). The group has around two dozen active members who try to lobby for their version of private property rights, which they believe trump regional planning laws, the public interest, and everyone else. It's a tiny group, but they think they run the place – and they're almost right.
Driven by greed and privilege, the BCLA dominates the Juan de Fuca land-use committee and throws its financial weight behind local politicians who make decisions about development in the Juan de Fuca area. That part hasn't changed in the past week.
The good news is the municipal elections are coming in November. It's become very clear what local residents value and where the incumbents stand, and it’s going to be very interesting.
A crisis – the park development proposal - launched a united effort that brought us together. The new coalition represents close to 50,000 island residents, from UVic students to indigenous activists. Dozens of rural residents who'd never come to political meeting or a land-use hearing in their lives stood up and spoke about how much they loved the forest and the park – and why they would fight to defend it.
We won the battle, but not the war. The enemy isn't resting, and we won't either.
Zoe Blunt is the founder of WildCoast.ca.
Photos by Rob Lovett.
Special thanks to Tria Donaldson and WCEL.