There is softening but no breakthrough yet in the impasse between Metro Vancouver and Coquitlam council over the proposed regional growth strategy after two days of dispute resolution talks.
Coquitlam is the sole holdout city after every other municipality agreed to sign the master plan governing growth in the region for decades to come.
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart warned smaller cities may be locked in with no way out, despite a requirement the Metro board consider reviewing the plan every five years.
Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby together hold a majority of Metro board votes and could block a review indefinitely, he said during Thursday’s meeting with Metro reps.
Coquitlam’s proposed solution is to lower the bar for a review to a one-third vote of the Metro board, which Stewart said would allow 15 smaller cities representing a million-plus residents to force a rethink of the strategy.
“It’s a 30-year document,” Stewart said. “We’ve got a serious concern with that.”
Coquitlam’s other worries about the plan may be eased by better assurance of a review if there are major problems in the first five years, he said.
Debate ensued over whether a lower threshold is even legal under provincial legislation governing regional growth plans.
“Fifty per cent plus one has forever been the balance,” said Metro chair Lois Jackson. “Can you imagine going to the provincial government and saying 33 per cent for the HST to pass?”
She said Coquitlam should not fear a “gang-up” of the big three cities against smaller ones, adding the region’s politicians routinely work cooperatively to ensure concerns get addressed.
The issue was shelved when Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie – a lawyer and Metro’s rep in the talks – said Metro won’t agree to a lower threshold even if it proves legal.
“To lower the threshold is not on,” Brodie said. “That’s part of democracy, you do things on the basis of 50 per cent plus one.”
Nor is it clear Metro could legally bend to another Coquitlam wish to change land-use designations for redevelopment on just a one-third vote of the board if two-thirds of the local council support the change.
Metro reps said that would let cities convert industrial land to waterfront condos in breach of the plan with a much lower vote of board directors, undermining the goal of conserving industrial lands.
“This was our attempt at presenting some kind of check and balance,” Coquitlam city manager Peter Steblin replied. “There may be other ways.”
But on other fronts, progress was made.
Coquitlam wanted tougher performance measures to gauge how well the plan works.
Metro reps agreed that can be done – without an actual amendment to the plan – through the regional district’s annual budget process and annual report on growth strategy compliance.
The discussion was at times acrimonious, with Coquitlam Coun. Selina Robinson comparing the dispute to a failing marriage where one side – Metro – has agreed to therapy but isn’t committed to saving the union.
Some critics of the plan hope Coquitlam’s opposition unravels the deal or allows major amendments.
Metro directors from many other cities in the region are angry Coquitlam did not raise its objections much earlier in the multi-year process and only this year refused to sign.
Caught in the middle is Coquitlam planning and development manager Jim McIntyre, who said some of his council’s objections are based on suspicion and lack of trust.
He chaired the group of senior planners from cities across the region that helped craft the final document and recommended its acceptance.
But McIntyre now finds himself arguing against key planks of the plan on orders from Coquitlam council.
Metro chief administrator Johnnie Carline walked McIntyre and Coquitlam reps through their objections and on multiple occasions persuaded them to agree the new growth plan is not overly onerous compared to the previous Livable Region Strategic Plan.
Carline stressed that only major land-use changes that run contrary to the plan designations – set by each city – would go to a vote of the regional board.
Smaller property changes would not go to a Metro vote, he said, nor would any development permit consistent with local zoning, any rezoning application consistent with the local Official Community Plan (OCP) or any amendment to a local OCP that’s consistent with the city’s regional context statement (which spells out how an OCP complies with the growth plan.)
Carline said it’s wrong to suggest the plan is written in stone because a city can change land use designations in its regional context statement with the board’s agreement. If blocked by the board, a city can seek arbitration.
Coquitlam Coun. Mae Reid, who previously said there were “fundamental problems” with the agreement, told Metro reps later she’s having some second thoughts.
“You might be changing my mind,” she said, calling it a good meeting.
“It gives me a basis for reviewing what I’m thinking, whether I’m still positively where I am and not moveable or whether I can see there might be other solutions.”
Coquitlam councillors declined to be interviewed at the end of the meeting.
But Stewart said major issues remain and a key problem is Metro’s apparent unwillingness to consider amending the plan to avoid forcing a re-run of the lengthy public consultation process – an road block to real negotiation.
He said Coquitlam is also concerned one of two facilitators quit this week.
Stewart also repeated concerns the plan’s many amendments to appease cities across the region leave a document that is too inconsistent.
Both sides agreed to schedule more meetings.
But Jackson said they can’t go on indefinitely.
“Let’s fish or cut bait,” she said.
It’s feared a long delay will drag the issue past the next civic elections and potentially unravel the accord if newly elected councils object to it.
Metro originally wanted binding arbitration but the province directed non-binding talks be tried first.