More than a year after it sparked a storm of public controversy, Mayor Wayne Baldwin is adamant in his view that the city is “required by provincial law” to plan housing according to population projections in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy (RGS).
A legal opinion provided to the City of White Rock last year – and released last month to Peace Arch News – is cited by Baldwin as supporting his stance, originally expressed in a letter to the editor in August 2015.
Baldwin said he urged council in-camera last year to release the legal opinion publicly but was overruled. He said he succeeded a year later.
Coun. Lynne Sinclair told PAN Thursday that while it is generally policy for the city not to share legal opinions it receives, council recognized that “the mayor really wanted to share it, in light of all the controversy around the RGS.”
“We said if you really want to do that, we’ll release it,” she said.
She added she could not comment on the opinion, as she had seen it only once during the closed meeting in which it was originally discussed.
When published, Baldwin’s letter was seized on by critics who saw it as a justification of a perceived bias by the mayor – and other members of council – for pushing forward high-density development outside current Official Community Plan boundaries.
But the opinion, delivered by lawyer Don Lidstone on Oct. 1, 2015, states “we do not think the mayor’s letter was misleading the public.”
Lidston e goes on to state that, under the Local Government Act, it’s mandatory that an OCP include “the approximate location, amount, type and density of residential development required to meet anticipated housing needs over a period of at least five years.”
He adds that, under the act, a city’s Regional Context Statement (RCS) must explain how the plan relates to the growth strategy and that it’s also mandatory for the city to identify how the RCS is to be “made consistent” with the strategy “over time.”
The opinion, however, stops short of saying that the RGS projections themselves are legally binding – adding that there are varying opinions on whether an OCP that did not fall in line with growth projections would be subject to “court attack.”
“The courts have shown considerable deference to municipalities in determining when there is an inconsistency,” Lidstone says. “Some cases have even referred to a requirement for an ‘absolute and direct collision’ – a test very beneficial to municipalities.”
Baldwin has not responded to requests for further comment on the legal opinion, saying only, through city communications manager Farnaz Farrokhi, that “it speaks for itself.”
Metro Vancouver representatives have been equally adamant, however, that RGS projections are only guidelines, and not legally binding.
“Projections are not targets,” Heather McNell, divisional manager of growth management for Metro Vancouver confirmed to PAN in an interview last month.
“They are not legally binding,” she said, adding that estimates are provided to member municipalities as part of an ongoing process of aligning OCPs with the growth strategy that requires both council and Metro Vancouver board approvals.
“They are provided for information to help (municipalities) plan,” she said. “There is lots of room in the LGA to interpret (projections) and what a council will do with them.”
Baldwin’s original letter to PAN cited regional growth estimates as adding 7,000 to White Rock’s population (currently at just under 20,000) by 2041 – requiring some 4,000 new dwellings to be built in the city.
While earlier that summer the region had halved its estimate for White Rock’s population growth, Baldwin told PAN that was not known at the time.
McNell said the city’s current OCP – which is under review – is “fully aligned” with the RGS.
A petition calling for Baldwin’s resignation was submitted to the city on Oct. 5, 2015.
“We believe that Wayne Baldwin attempted to have the public believe this incorrect statement to attempt to numb the public to the many non OCP- compliant development proposals that he and the coalition have endorsed,” it stated.
Baldwin responded at that time that the petition had “no basis in fact” and that he had “absolutely no reason to resign.”
In his letter to PAN, Baldwin noted that “the RGS requirements were approved by a previous council in March 2011, and incorporated into the RGS when it was approved by the Metro Board in July 2011.
“This is the law and we must follow it, and the numbers must be incorporated into the amended OCP (Official Community Plan),” Baldwin wrote.
Last month, Baldwin told PAN he believed, from the time the projections were approved in 2011, that they were too high and needed to be adjusted downwards.