The Campbell River Coalition to End Homelessness is asking the Strathcona Regional District to find a way to hold public hearings so that a Cortes Island affordable housing project can move forward.
“All across the world, different sizes of groups have managed to implement technological solutions and they are available. We would just like them to direct their staff to figure it out and make it happen,” said Sue Moen, a representative from the coalition.
The Cortes Island Seniors Society is trying to build a new affordable housing complex on the island. The project requires a rezoning application, which under SRD rules must go to public hearing before it is approved. However, the regional district has postponed all public hearings until after Sept. 7. The Rainbow Ridge rezoning hearing deferral has been in the news before. The Mirror reported in early June that the project could face additional challenges if a timely public hearing process did not occur. A public hearing was originally scheduled for April 30, but that was rescheduled to June 25 due to the pandemic.
On May 1, the Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth made a ministerial order that allowed regional districts and other local governments to hold public hearings electronically, despite COVID-19 physical distancing. However, at the May 27 board meeting, the board voted to postpone all public hearings into the fall.
The SRD Board has said that they do not have the technical ability to hold electronic meetings. The board has also not held a live public meeting of any kind since March.
“I think the SRD needs to find new ways to conduct business during COVID-19, including public hearings for rezoning so that important projects such as building affordable housing can be funded as part of the economic recovery plan for the region,” said the project coordinator for the Cortes Island Seniors Society, Sandra Wood.
“The letter that we wrote was in response to information that we received from the proponent that there were no public hearings, there had been no public hearings and there were no planned public hearings. They were very concerned,” Moen said. “There is a window with B.C. Housing around new build funding. If the public process is part of the process, and if they can’t figure out a way to do that, then the group that has been working very diligently and very hard moving this project forward could hit a significant roadblock.”
“Who knows whether there will even be a next round of funding in the same way that there has been in the last while, or when that’s going to be,” she added.
Moen explained that Cortes had been identified by the Strathcona Community Health Network as a critical area lacking in housing in the regional district. Over 30 per cent of the population on Cortes is paying over 30 per cent of their income towards housing, “which defines them as at risk for homelessness,” she said.
“Housing… right now there is such a huge focus on it. Provincial dollars are there. We have a provincial government that is making housing a priority, so for our next levels of government not to make every effort to facilitate housing being built is unfathomable,” she added.
The coalition’s letter is not the first to come to the board expressing discontent about the public hearing deferral. In June, BC Ferries also asked the board to reconsider their policy.
The regional district plans to start electronic meetings with electronic public attendance in September.
As for the letter itself, it was on the board’s July 22 agenda to be received as correspondence. Cortes area director Noba Anderson asked how the item could be moved forward to facilitate a public hearing at the earliest opportunity, and was directed by chair Michele Babchuk to talk to staff about the issue.
Not all directors were happy with the direction, however. Area D director Brenda Leigh told Anderson that “I don’t believe that any director should meddle in the operational issues of the staff. The board has given direction that there would be no public hearings until after Sept. 7, and there’s four or five other applicants that are also waiting for public hearings.
“I have issues too, but I’m waiting patiently for the safe go-ahead for those meetings. Safe for the public and safe for our staff and the directors,” she added.
Leigh and other directors also took issue with the fact that the letter was not signed.
“We have a policy at our board as well that we don’t receive unsigned letters, and this is not signed, We don’t know who wrote it exactly, and it’s not signed so I don’t think we should even bother to receive it,” Leigh said.
Moen and the coalition hope that the directors and staff would work together to find a way to hold public meetings as soon as possible.
“If they’re not comfortable with in-person public hearings and I understand that, the restrictions around that and the difficulty… We would just like them to direct their staff to figure it out and make it happen. None of us are total experts, but we have seen successful examples of engagement processes from different levels of government, different organizations, so it is possible,” she said.
“Our elected officials are responsible to us, and that’s the democratic process. We would hope that regardless of the extra effort they may have to expend, that they would expend that effort to include their constituents. We just want them to see this particular item as critical as we see it,” Moen added.
Six directors opposed receiving the letter, including Brad Unger, Andy Adams, Gerald Whalley, Jim Abrams, Ron Kerr and Brenda Leigh.