Although the District of Squamish council has not changed its opinion on autonomy within the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS), council voted on Tuesday night to enter binding arbitration within the provincial framework.
Council made the decision despite the risk that the arbitrator could side against them, effectively giving other governments in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District a vote on land use decisions within Squamish.
Council supported the staff recommendation to move ahead to binding arbitration unanimously, although Corinne Londsdale questioned whether there was any harm in sending the issue back to non-binding arbitration for another 120-day period.
"I'm not as optimistic as our planner is," she said. "I'm very much concerned that we could lose our autonomy.
"At one point in time we were the only jurisdiction not onside (with the RGS strategy), the steering committee and staff members (at the District of Squamish) were supportive of the original RGS," she said, pointing out that it was the past council that voted against the move, with then Councillor Greg Gardner leading the opposition.
"I'm not sure the arbitrator might not look at this and see that at one point all were agreed and Squamish wasn't. It's a bit of a crapshoot, we don't know where the arbitrator will go. Why are we afraid of triggering another 120 days of public comment?"
Cameron Chalmers, the director of planning for the District of Squamish, admitted that there was a chance that the RGS could be passed without the changes that Squamish has proposed, but said it was more likely that Whistler - so far the only municipality not in favour of the changes - will be in the minority.
Other governments, including Pemberton, the District of Lilloeet and area directors within the regional district, have agreed in principle to Squamish's proposed changes to the RGS, which includes keeping autonomy over land use decisions with local governments.
"There is a slight element of risk but one advantage we have as the objector is that we're in charge of the process, the selection of the arbitrator and the settlement process (is between) the SLRD and Squamish only," said Chalmers. "We are optimistic that this is heading in a very good course, and we believe we can win a consent-based arbitration."
Now the mayor, Gardner said he supported the moved to end the non-binding arbitration process, which has been ongoing since May.
"I'm comfortable with the staff recommendation and we also have a responsibility to keep (the RGS) moving forward. A lot of time and money has been spent going forward with this process," he said.
Councillor Paul Lalli asked why the issue had to go to arbitration at all, given the fact that all of the local governments, with the exception of Whistler, supported Squamish's proposed changes to the wording of the RGS document.
"Now that we have a majority of the other member municipalities and directors, why not take it back to a vote and advance the new bylaw?"
Chalmers answered that the provincial legislation dictates that negotiations follow a framework to resolve disputes, and that the process has to conclude with unanimous consent among members or go to arbitration. Otherwise, any changes would merely restart the non-binding arbitration process, which includes another public comment period, and could be derailed by other SLRD members at any time.
"After the 120-day referral period there can be two outcomes - either the RGS is accepted and moves towards approval or it is not, in which case that automatically triggers the dispute resolution mechanism," said Chalmers.
However, the legislation is not clear over what to do if a consensus is reached during the non-binding process.
Whistler council also voted Tuesday to commit to binding arbitration on the issue.
Even with the decision to enter into binding arbitration it will be several months before a decision can be made, allowing the SLRD to move forward on the RGS plans. The goal of the RGS, which is mandated by the province, is to guide future growth in the district and to create livable, sustainable communities according to Smart Growth principles. Official Community Plans, which are also required by the province, have to conform to the overall RGS strategy.
However, Squamish opposed a clause that would allow local government to vote on land use plans in other communities where the RGS and Official Community Plan would have to be ratified. As a result, Whistler could veto an application for rezoning in Squamish, or vice versa - although there's little risk of that happening to Whistler at this point as the community nears build-out, while Squamish is a rapidly growing community.
At the request of the province, Squamish agreed to the non-binding dispute resolution process in May, triggering more discussion between local governments.
In September, the District of Squamish put forward two potential solutions that would allow communities autonomy over land use decisions in their electoral areas, which have since been endorsed by Pemberton and Lillooet, as well as area directors with a few changes of their own.
Satisfied with the changes, the SLRD resolved in October to end the non-binding process and move into a binding process, forcing other local governments to make the same decision.
Squamish endorses agricultural shift
Squamish could be a lot more edible in the future, if an initiative by the Squamish Climate Action Network moves forward.
Sarah Weber and Katie Pease presented a case to council for growing more food within the district, while making a request for $20,000 that would go towards the creation of an agricultural plan for the municipality.
Squamish council referred the request to staff and asked if some of the work can be done in-house or if any of the money - which would be used to solicit matching funds from the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. - could come from existing reserve funds, like the gas tax or carbon neutral reserve fund. The deadline for the next round of grants is Feb. 12, so council also placed some urgency on the request.
"Agriculture was an original industry in Squamish, the original settlers here were farmers and there was an industry here for many years," said Weber. "The time has come to be a contributor again."
Some of the reasons given for a resurgence in agriculture include reduced greenhouse gas emissions from importing food, food security in the event of a crisis, the creation of jobs for self-employed workers, industries to support agriculture, composting for waste, increased food awareness and agri-tourism.
According to Weber the funding would be used to educate the public, as well as to study what crops might work best as well as the land base best-suited to agriculture. Since a lot of the arable land in the area is in the Squamish Valley, the Squamish Lillooet Regional District would need to be involved as well.
Councillor Paul Lalli praised the Squamish Climate Action Network and supported their proposal, although he was also in favour of referring it to staff to see how the district could best help out.
"Personally I'm really impressed with the Climate Action Network and the work that's been done on water conservation, transportation awareness (and other areas)," he said. "I'm blown away with the amount of volunteer effort put into this organization. If you ever asked for a request of money, this is the first one I'm aware of.
"I do think it's important that you do work with planning staff because this is a planning issue. That said, I'm a big supporter of identifying land in the district (for agriculture) for food security and food production, and it's important to have policies and land available for that."
Corinne Lonsdale also supported the initiative, but she was concerned that the proposal could be lost in all the grant-in-aid requests before the district at a time "that we don't have a lot of money floating around out there." She also supported sending the idea to the planning department to find out what other opportunities might be available, as well as whether there was any research already available to fill in some of the holes.
Squamish to study long-term landfill plan
The future of the landfill and other solid waste management practices are being put under the microscope by the District of Squamish, with council approving up to $50,000 to hire a consultant to complete a landfill management study for the community.
There is currently no comprehensive study available that looks at the big picture of the landfill and with the district's solid waste permit expiring at the end of 2010 the time was ripe to look at a long-term strategy.
The study would look at waste diversion practices like recycling and composting, as well as options for the site itself. That could mean continuing to operate the landfill with upgrades to meet stricter standards, expanding the landfill to accept waste and funding from outside the district - a preferred option identified by Whistler - or following Whistler's lead by closing the landfill and shipping waste to the Rabanco site in Washington State.
Squamish did consider shipping its waste in 1995 when its last operating permit expired, but was given a 10-year extension to operate by the Ministry of the Environment.
Mayor Greg Gardner welcomed the study, saying it was long overdue.
"It's going to cost a tiny bit, but it's important we make very tactful decisions concerning this," he said.
Council supported the application unanimously, with an expected completion date in March.