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A uniquely B.C. form of government

Pundit Cindy Filipenko mulls the regional district's once and future role in the Sea to Sky corridor. Alison Taylor provides a local perspective
"I would hate to have this conversation go by without mentioning the important role First Nations play." Former SLRD chair John Turner on the necessity of respecting each other's culture, photo by Maureen Provencal

By Cindy Filipenko

As we enter a New Year, it seems an appropriate time to look to the future. The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) will play a large role in shaping the future for citizens in the Sea to Sky corridor. But who really knows what the SLRD does, how it came to be and where it’s going?

This uniquely British Columbian form of regional government has alternately been loved and loathed. The regional district system was introduced to the province in the booming mid-60s as a way of providing governance for communities not represented within the municipal system. This period of rapid development came about largely due to resource extraction. Logging was king. Mining was good. And the seas looked like they’d be overflowing with fish forever. With the province undergoing unprecedented growth a mechanism was needed to deal with development of Crown land and regulation of private lands not covered by municipalities.

And with the growth in rural areas came the need for increased services. To reclaim the costs of such services as fire protection, water and waste management, there needed to be a more localized form of governance. The predominant feeling at the time was the rural areas were being subsidized by urbanized areas and were essential freeloaders. For example, residents of rural areas could use nearby municipal services without paying a share of the costs associated with operating such things as recreation facilities. By establishing regional districts, the provincial government hoped to change both the perception and reality, while giving rural areas more autonomy to manage their destiny.

The province decided that regional districts would have three basic functions. First, they would provide regional governance for the whole area. Secondly, they would provide a political forum for representation. Lastly, they would act as a vehicle for advancing the interests of the region as a whole. The system was developed with a noble set of core values. Political scientist Robert Bish considers the system to be among the best in North America. In his report for the University of Victoria’s Local Government Institute, “Regional District Review 1999 – Issues and Interjurisdictional Comparisons,” he concluded:

“The municipal-regional district system of local governments in British Columbia compares very favourably with local government systems elsewhere in North America. Regional districts do provide for inexpensive basic rural government, a political forum and administration for inter-municipal cooperation and regional governance. The opportunity to enter into inter-municipal cooperation easily and participate in regional governance also permits small municipalities with their very high levels of voter turnout and citizen participation to function efficiently. The regional district model has also been adaptable to very different areas of the province. Finally, regional districts have been especially successful compared to the provincial imposition of two-tier systems in Ontario, and all evidence indicates that the British Columbia system will outperform large amalgamated systems such as the Halifax Regional Municipality.”

Today, B.C. consists of 157 municipal governments and 27 regional districts. Since the whole province has been essentially sectioned off into 27 pieces, municipalities share resource and infrastructure development and management with regional districts. These regional districts are further subdivided to create electoral areas.

Now here is where it gets tricky: “The regional districts are modeled as a federation composed of municipalities and electoral areas, each of which has representation on the regional board.” This means that mayors and councilors from municipalities sit on the boards of directors for regional districts. These politicians are put in the position of having to represent their municipality's interests at a board where they may find themselves in conflict with the needs of electoral area directors. With both sides having legitimate and opposite positions, the road to resolution is often travelled at a snail’s pace.

On the positive side, because the decision-making process is so arduous and time-consuming, all sides of an issue are carefully — some may say painstakingly so — considered before action is undertaken.

In larger jurisdictions, such as Vancouver and Victoria, the regional districts are considered almost as other governments, considered with mega-issues such as transit and water systems. However, in smaller communities where the issues that necessitated the development of regional government still exist, it sometimes feels like too much government. For example, a recent application by a local heli-skiing operation ping-ponged between the Village of Pemberton and the SLRD for three months before a decision was made. Moreover, politicians being people, sometimes the issues are obscured by ego.

Forty years after the introduction of the regional district system in B.C., the question for this little understood form of government is, What is the future of the SLRD? To answer this question, SLRD Administrator Paul Edgington, former chair and Electoral Area D representative John Turner and veteran Electoral Area C representative Susie Gimse sat down with Pique Newsmagazine and discussed the role of the SLRD.

Pique: What makes the regional district system unique from other forms of government?

Paul Edgington : What’s unique about the regional district in my mind is that it’s a corporate body that can address problems on multiple levels. It can deal with a neighbourhood issue like a streetlight or a series of streetlights or a larger issue like a fire department; it can also do things on a sub-regional scale or delivering a service on a regional basis.

A regional employee doesn’t just focus on issues in say, Area D or Pemberton.Your corporate mandate under policy direction of the board is to balance all of the interests in the region. That’s not to suggest that municipal employees don’t operate on that basis, and in fact they often do, but it’s part of the corporate culture of a regional district to work with broader perspectives.

The province has been carved up into 27 different regions, or as my colleagues like to say, “We’re the club of 27.” Each one has evolved in a slightly different way around the central legislation. Some regional districts have large amounts of unincorporated areas, while some consist of essentially all incorporated areas.

Victoria, which is my hometown, has 17 municipalities. The criticism of that was that there were 17 councils, 17 administrators, wouldn’t it be better to have one or two or three municipalities — something along the Toronto or Montreal model. (Robert) Bish’s conclusion was that all the services that could be delivered on a regional or sub-regional basis were being delivered; economies of scale were being realized. The advantage the Greater Victoria Regional District has with all of those municipalities was that it gave greater responsiveness on a neighbourhood basis. It allowed Sydney to develop, Saanich to remain more rural and Central Saanich to develop in its own way.

Pique : Does having the SLRD encompass land from Furry Creek to Bralorne make sense? Are their enough similarities in the region?

John Turner : One of the strengths of the regional district is that it’s flexible enough to serve the various interests. In my own electoral area I have almost a suburban type environment, as far as Furry Creek is concerned. Then I have a very rural environment as far as the Upper Squamish area us concerned. Service delivery, in this model, is flexible enough that it can adjust. It allows municipalities to focus on what they want to, but it provides a whole other level of partnership to deal with some services, like solid waste management.

As we look to the future, I think regional transportation would be advantageous. Emergency response, fire protection and police protection could have more of a regional focus. We have to look where can deliver the service more efficiently if we look at it from a regional perspective.

Pique : Is there a problem of geography? Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton are accessible to each other within 45 minutes, but then it’s upwards of two hours to Lillooet. Is regional service delivery feasible? Do the current SLRD boundaries make sense?

Susie Gimse : Geographically there’s a distance, no question. But at the end of the day, local government issues are local government issues whether you’re Squamish or Lillooet, they’re just a different magnitude. In terms of service delivery, we develop our services to take into account the geography. Does this make sense? You have to look at the alternative. To change the SLRD would require a major restructuring of boundaries, not just to our district, but to other districts.

Over the years, there’s been a considerable amount of discussion that perhaps the northern part of our region would be better suited connected to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. Suddenly Lillooet is part of a very large regional district, they have 21 or 23 directors around the table, their area is very large. Here they sit at a table with nine directors, here the area is large and there is a divide, but they have a voice and they are heard at this table. That’s the northern consideration in terms of alternatives.

What are the southern alternatives? With three municipalities, two electoral areas — so five jurisdictions with six directors — I don’t think the province of B.C. would support establishing a new regional district for an area so small. Where would we go? Likely, we would end up in the GVRD, and would that be in our best interest?

PE : I think there are more commonalities than differences in the region. For example, one of the big growing industries is tourism, in particular adventure tourism; some of the backcountry tourism operators in Pemberton and Whistler utilize Bralorne. Gunn Lake and the surrounding area is essentially becoming cottage country for Squamish and Whistler residents.

It’s very positive to be able to have discussions about the region with elected officials from those various areas.

Pique: How will the issue of municipal boundary expansion affect the SLRD?

SG: Specifically in terms of Pemberton and Area C, we’ve talked about it. It’s a basic planning principle that boundaries follow land use. We’re working with Mt. Currie and Pemberton to develop a sub-regional plan that will look at this. Once we’ve determined what we want our land use to be, the boundaries will follow. If it’s determined that a specific area is suitable for high-density development, then that area belongs within a municipal boundary, not a rural area.

We need to sit down, as the three jurisdictions, and ask, “What do we want to look like? Where do we want to see the growth?” As a result of those discussions, I think municipal boundaries will fall out of that. That’s my understanding of where we are going with the sub-regional plan.

JT : Speaking for Area D, we border on two municipalities north and south of Squamish, it’s the underlying interest of why the boundary expansion is taking place. If we find a way to work together exceptionally well we don’t need a boundary expansion because we’ve got agreement in terms of sharing costs on cultural and recreational amenities and that sort of thing. I think it will work extremely well.

There are many people in Electoral Area D that like the focus that they get having an electoral area and they would see an amalgamation of say, Area D and Squamish, as a dilution of their interests in terms of representation. An electoral area is different, and more so as we move north the difference between electoral areas and municipalities become more apparent. As far as Area D is concerned, people say, “Why don’t we amalgamate Furry Creek, Britannia and Porteau Cove and incorporate our own area?” And I think there are a lot of people who say we would rather like to decide what kind of governance we prefer instead of waking up one morning and being welcomed to the GVRD — the decision being made without their participation.

SG : No matter where the boundaries end up, we have to ensure that the electoral area is still standing. In terms of backcountry development, we have to make sure there’s the tax base. You just can’t take the cream off the top and leave the skim milk.

In this area we are unique compared to other regions in the province, in that Area C and Pemberton share almost all of our services and one of the biggest complaints you’ll hear from other municipalities is the “free- ridership” issue — that people in rural areas are accessing services without paying for them. Here that’s not the case. We’ve provided those services together and made them affordable. And if you look at the tax assessments, you’ll see that Area C has always paid for the lion’s share of the cost of those services because we have a slightly higher assessment and slightly higher population. We can’t be accused of free-ridership because we’ve paid our share.

PE : From an administrative point of view, I support the principle that good planning will result in good boundaries. The basic principles of planning are to understand what the land base can support, what needs protecting, enhancing, whether its forestry, fishery, residential, commercial or industrial activity or whatever. Once you understand that you can understand what to do with the land base.

With respect to what would happen organizationally with boundary changes, the organization would just evolve.

Are we planning ourselves into a corner? Is having a number of plans and studies — regional, sub-regional and area — examining the same land issues a good thing or a bad thing?

SG : The Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) appears top-down and long-term. The OCPs (Official Community Plans) are short-term and more bottom-up and it’s always been my view that you have to have the community determine what they want to be and how that fits into the OCP. We as a regional district have no jurisdiction over the Pemberton OCP or the Mt. Currie (Lil’wat) Land Use Plan process and vision. The Sub-regional Plan is intended to bring us all together to see what our various uses look like and see how that can fit into the RGS.

There are some that think that the RGS should determine what every community looks like. I’m a strong believer that we, as a community, need to determine what the vision is for this community collectively, Area C, Pemberton and Mt. Currie, and give direction to the RGS.

JT : I don’t disagree with that. I think that’s necessary. I think both levels of plans are necessary. The RGS is more high-level and guiding principles, if you would. Those principles are only there because we all agreed that’s the key, if we don’t agree that those guiding principles are appropriate to our areas… we are into discussion and negotiations at elected officials forums.

There’s a need for more detailed planning. I’m with Suzie, what our communities should look like should be developed within the communities. I think the OCPs should inform the RGS process and not the other way around.

SG : In terms of the RGS, one of the areas to work on is transportation and transit. Obviously, that’s an issue of regional significance and I think all of us at the board agree this is something to pursue. There are also issues of sustainability and economic development: What do we do so Lillooet is as economically sound as Whistler?

We need to develop together, as partners, so that there is economic growth and development in all our communities. The RGS has a broad regional component to it that is not community specific.

PE : To express a slightly different side to that, to me, OCPs and core strategies are very different documents. A RGS is supposed to reflect a 30-, 40- to 50-year horizon. The horizon for an OCP is much shorter at five years — it should be longer, but it’s refreshed on a five-year basis.

Part of the task of an RGS is to explain and interpret OCPs, essentially saying, “Based on the current OCP this is what things could look like down the road.” People will either say, “That’s cool” or “Oh, I didn’t realize that.”

The important thing for me is that the whole process can be done in consideration of respectful dialogue, understanding how your choice affects your neighbour and conversely how your neighbour’s choice affects you.

Pique: Can we efficiently plan for the cost of infrastructure if we’re looking forward 25 years?

PE : If you’re using the tools you’ve afforded yourself, like a growth strategy and an OCP, you start to understand the things that can happen. You need to do the assessments. We’re looking at doubling the population of this region over the next 25 years. We will need sewage treatment, we will need transit... The growth strategy is the easy part, the detailed implementation work. How we’re going to do that, is the hard part. If you have a target, it’s easier to do that planning.

We will be doing the outreach to the public, sometimes specific sectors of the public, so those people can ask, “Does this make sense?” It’s one thing to say we’re going to grow to a certain level and need a certain amount of housing, but the development sector might say, “We think we can market 10 times that amount of housing.” Staff believes that the public consultation process is essential.

JT : We (Area D) have neighbours that are not represented on the regional district, but these First Nations have been invited to attend elected official forums and have taken us up in many instances. We have to work together as we move forward. So there are necessities for protocols, or at least understanding each other’s interests and harmonizing land use plans.

Right now we have a Lil’wat Land Use Plan, Sea to Sky Land Use Plan, a Squamish Nation plan, as well as forthcoming plans from In-Shuck-Ch and Stl'Atl'Imx , I would hate to have this conversation go by without mentioning the important role First Nations play. I don’t think there’s ever been a RGS up to this time that has been developed with participation by First Nations. We enter these talks understanding that they do not impact on aboriginal rights and title and it’s been very beneficial.

Pique: How would you characterize your relationships with the member municipalities?

SG : I would have to say it’s positive. Certainly, we can do more work. Maybe it’s time for a town hall meeting. Area C and the VOP can get together and bring people up to speed on what we’ve been doing. I’d like to see a meeting where Area C and VOP sit down at the same table and talk about what’s happening once a month, but that’s been difficult — everybody’s busy. The relationship is positive but I think we need to communicate increasingly often so we’re up on the issues and working together to find solutions to those issues. (Director Gimse also spoke positively about Area C’s relationship with Whistler.)

JT : As far as Area D relationships with Whistler and Squamish, I think it comes right down to people relationships as well as government relationships. On the people aspect, I have made it my business to offer my services to participate in different things in both Squamish and Whistler. In Whistler, I have been attending the One Whistler meetings and am open to discussion related to that. The fact that Black Tusk Village and Pinecrest Estates have Whistler addresses means there’s a working relationship, we have agreements on services, and at meetings like UBCM (Union of BC Municipalities) we make a point of getting together.

In terms of Squamish, I have been on the Waterfront Development Corporation and have participated in other community committees as an individual and not a representative of the SLRD. But I think it is so important to establish those relationships. When we come up with something that requires intergovernmental relations to happen it’s much easier than starting from zero. It’s equally important that we foster relations with First Nations.

Pique: What are the pressing issues for Area D and C for the next five years?

JT : I still feel the RGS is still a pressing issue. It hasn’t been resolved yet; it’s still in process. I think we’re fine on the principles and all that, one of the pressing issues could be governance; we touched on that earlier with boundary expansion. I think aboriginal relations are key, more so in our area, than other areas. Negotiations with the provinces have resulted in a number of land transfers and the establishment of land use plans. I think that working our way through those documents is very important. I think transportation is key, we live in a long skinny region, especially in the south — we still don’t have adequate connections to the community.

If we go up to 70,000, in population, how do we get those other 35,000 people from A to B? The ability to connect between jobs and residences will be key. Whistler is a prime example. It’s an economic hub. There’s also a large portion of workers who are non-residents. For example, a great number of households in Squamish have at least one family member working in Whistler.

SG : For me it’s all about quality of life. Things like being able to work from home and have access to high-speed Internet. Things like having safe roads to drive on. Things like having safe drinking water, access to health services…. People move to this area because they appreciate the rural lifestyle — it’s about maintaining that rural lifestyle. Allowing people to appreciate and take advantage of the pleasures that a rural lifestyle offers.

It’s my view that people don’t move to Pemberton and Area C and expect to have a convenience store on the corner, that’s not why they move here. But they do want to be able to have a good lifestyle without hardship.

The other issue that’s a rising concern is around affordability. For me the solution lies in making good, solid land use decisions that support the community and insuring we have the infrastructure in place to support the community. It’s about looking at services we need to provide to address issues around quality of life, that’s water, recreation, safe roads and other services like sanding the roads.

JT : Environmental stewardship will continue to become even more important for the region. And I couldn’t agree more with Susie about the quality of life, everything revolves around that.

Seeing the regional district through Whistler’s eyes

By Alison Taylor

Whistler is doing a thorough review of its relationship with the regional district in light of the strained relations of the past year.

That review could determine whether or not the resort municipality re-commits funding to the SLRD, which was removed, in an unprecedented decision, by Whistler council in September.

Since that decision, which was prompted by frustration that Whistler’s concerns were falling on deaf ears at the board table, things have been a little better, according to Mayor Ken Melamed.

“I think it’s fair to say that I think relations are good, possibly even improved since that… tussle,” he said.

Of the nine SLRD members Whistler pays the lion’s share to the planning function of the regional district.

The review will, among other things, examine the benefits of Whistler paying to be a part of that planning function and having its vote at the nine-member board table.

“We can’t pull out of the regional district,” said Melamed. “The one thing that we can do is pull out (funding) of the planning function. That’s the direction we’re going in and this review may lead Whistler to reconsider that position.”

The delay on that review is due in part to the results of the 2006 Census.

If Whistler’s permanent population tops 10,000 people, Whistler will get another seat at the regional district table. Squamish has two seats already.

“That could change the dynamic again,” said Melamed.

The census data will be released in mid-March.

At the heart of the shifting dynamics between Whistler and the regional district is the fundamental premise that municipalities and rural areas have very different interests.

Top of mind for Whistler is concern over fringe development, which is development that maximizes the advantages of being close to the resort without paying resort taxes.

The land on Whistler’s fringe is in SLRD territory and the issue has come to a head over several developments, specifically the Green River Estates planned on the northern borders of the municipality.

With population trends showing the corridor is going to double in size in the next two decades, pressure to develop is a major concern from Whistler’s perspective.

There are several benefits to Whistler in keeping its vote and its money at the regional district, not the least of which is the ability to participate in planning decisions, particularly the Regional Growth Strategy.

“Certainly at this point in time one of the major benefits to us is to complete this Regional Growth Strategy,” said the mayor. “Our community clearly said in Whistler2020 that we don’t exist in isolation, that our success is related to the corridor’s success and certainly, you can’t achieve (sustainability) within a legal boundary of a town. It’s a global issue and so fundamentally we have to get along in the corridor and agree on sustainability principles in the corridor if we’re going to be successful in our pursuit.”