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Pemberton council wary of easing retaining wall restrictions

Council sends proposal back to staff, encourages residents to seek variances
Village of Pemberton council declined to ease restrictions on retaining walls at its regular meeting on Jan. 12, instead referring the matter back to staff.

Village of Pemberton (VOP) council opted against easing restrictions on retaining walls at its regular meeting on Jan. 12.

When the current restrictions, limiting the height of retaining walls to 1.2 metres, came into effect in 2018, it affected in-progress developments such as Sunstone and The Ridge. The proposed bylaw sought to balance the former rules by removing the cap on retaining walls, but requiring an engineer to design and supervise construction of any retaining wall higher than 1.2 m. (The former bylaw has the engineering requirement for walls taller than 2.4 m.) However, council voted to send the matter back to staff.

Planner Cameron Chalmers explained at the meeting that in the future, with hillside development guidelines being considered as part of the upcoming Official Community Plan review, the VOP will strive to handle retention needs on a larger scale, but for now, it needs to find a way to deal with individual lots as part of subdivisions.

“It’ll allow the current lots that have been subdivided and transacted to private ownership to be constructed in a manner more similar to the previous bylaw than the current one,” he said.

In his report, Chalmers explained that the amendment is being proposed as the Board of Variance has found itself in a challenging position. The board has received two requests to vary retaining wall heights, but has opted against coming to a decision because it doesn’t feel that the request is merely a minor variance. 

Council directed staff to review retaining wall provisions at its Dec. 8 Committee of the Whole meeting, but Mayor Mike Richman acknowledged that there must have been some miscommunication as part of the request.

“I was a little surprised that the maximum height was eliminated entirely. I know it’s hard to establish what is an appropriate height depending on what the site is, and I know that we’re referring to a lot of midterm rather than future development,” he said. 

Chalmers said that the sites falling under the bylaw are all familiar to staff and “most of the sites will fall under these provisions” without any need for council to be involved. All sites have passed the VOP’s subdivision process.

“Although the review of the grading and the retention was not to the level that we would anticipate in future approvals, those lots were reviewed,” Chalmers said. “We are challenged to come up with what the right number would be for a retaining structure with the information we have available. We have enough to say, ‘Those are buildable lots.’ We don’t have enough to be able to say, ‘It will require 1.75 or 2.25 metres of retention per lot.”

Councillor Ted Craddock suggested an alternative formula, posing the possibility of a percentage of slope rather than a hard number.

Chalmers said those are possible but would require additional work.

“We took away from Committee of the Whole after discussion around the maximum height that we would not be pursuing that at this time, so that’s the bylaw that’s been prepared,” he said. “If upon reflection, council would like to see how we can better interface between lots, it is a different level of study. It’s not an imminent turnaround time.”

Richman said he feels for those who are in a holding pattern with their lots while also acknowledging that the hillside needs to be preserved.

“For this interim bit, is there another way that we can make sure that the aesthetics and natural landscape are preserved not by implementing those sorts of metrics?” Richman asked.

Chalmers said striking the balance is exactly what the challenge has been.

“Some owners were unaware that we would be approaching retention the way that we have when they made their commitments,” he said. 

Council voted to refer the matter back to staff to return to Committee of the Whole with options to limit height in a fair manner. 

“We need a better understanding of what council believes to be a problematic wall,” Chalmers said. “No matter what you pick, there would be times where it wouldn’t suit a particular site and you’d have to deal with that by variance.”

Richman encouraged those needing walls taller than 1.2 m to start the variance process while the bylaw is being hammered out.

“We’ll be very open to looking at those variances and protecting the hillside at the same time,” Richman said.