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The new new waterfront

Squamish re-launches Oceanfront Planning Process

Change can be pretty exhausting, planning for it all the more so. Poised once again to re-launch its Oceanfront Planning Process (OPP), the District of Squamish is something of a microcosm for that fatigue.

On page two of the staff report detailing the new strategy, confusion, urgency and frustration are all keywords, but, says district director of planning Cameron Chalmers, all that is about to change.

“What you’ll see today is a really good road map,” he said minutes before last Tuesday’s district strategy session. “What council heard in the past is they really need a more active engagement in the process.”

Plans for a revitalized oceanfront have been kicking around district desks for years. At one time in the town’s history, the oceanfront was the seat of its identity: blue collar and industrial. The planning department still sees it as a potential character asset, but, rather than carrying the brownfield brand, it will be a stage for the live, work and play principle shaping much of Squamish’s planning literature.

To that end, years ago, the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation (SODC) was formed. A concept plan came together in 2004, joint ventures were explored and lost, and, in the words of the report, the process unfolded in “fits and starts.”

In March 2008, the district hired consultant HB Lanarc (formerly Holland Barrs, a district favourite) to stoke a new fire, and, along with Chalmers, representatives of the firm presented the new vision to council last Tuesday.

“It’s such a critical piece of land for your community,” said consultant Peter Whitelaw. “People aren’t interested in going back to square one. We’ve got to be steady and consistent, keep this thing in front of council.”

Strategically speaking, the crucial difference between the old and the new is council direction and public consultation. The reins are no longer in the firm grip of the SODC, which is currently without a CEO. Rather, council direction will be actively sought.

And stakeholder consultation is central to the new strategy. According to the plan, the landowners and the public will have equal access to the director’s chair, and, rather than simply inviting the public to a hotel conference room, proactive outreach measures will be explored, including avenues like Facebook. Funding, meanwhile, will be up to the landowners.

The whole thing is set for a public launch on June 28 at Pavilion Park.

Throughout the presentation, political and planning themes that partially define this council surfaced again and again. Some were positive: There’s an interest in district energy systems and affordable housing, as well as mixed-use development that creates jobs and culture. Others, meanwhile, were negative. Councillor Corrine Lonsdale felt staff devised the new strategy independent of political direction, a common complaint of hers that Chalmers flatly denied.

“I want to try and break down that barrier where we come to you and say this is our list,” he said after Lonsdale’s outburst.

Schisms between Mayor Ian Sutherland and Lonsdale are common fare, and the outgoing leader attempted to keep the conversation focused on the new process. Councillor Raj Kahlon also clashed with Sutherland.

And yet, the plan was well received. Councillor Mike Jenson, speaking much longer than he usually does, empathized with the oceanfront file’s apparent stagnation and welcomed the new approach.

“All I can say is there’s been so much change in the community,” he said. “Like, concrete development. When the community started thinking about this four years ago, there wasn’t so much development.”

Specifically, he mentioned developer Westmana’s mirEau building, a waterfront project for which the rezoning recently received third reading.

Seemingly in response to Lonsdale’s comments, Councillor Patricia Heintzman said: “We sometimes start to criticize before the process gets going.”

If the planning department sticks to its timeline, the process will be going at relatively breakneck speed. A draft plan is scheduled for winter, and a final plan for spring 2009.