White Rock towers backed after five-hour hearing

OCP amendment and rezoning that would allow two highrises on Oxford Street divides the community.

Cyndie Richards addresses White Rock council and staff at a public hearing for a two-highrise project proposed for Oxford Street. Below

A marathon public hearing Monday evening that saw both strong support and opposition to a two-tower development proposal in White Rock concluded with the majority of council voting to inch the project forward.

By the time the hearing wrapped up just a minute before midnight – five hours after it began – council had heard from more than 70 speakers, many of whom spoke on behalf of others who couldn’t attend and a handful who spoke more than once.

Emotions ran high among those speaking on the two bylaw amendments at issue – an Official Community Plan amendment and rezoning to pave the way for 24- and 21-storey highrises at 1454 Oxford St. Mayor Wayne Baldwin called for order on several occasions throughout the night, the first time just three minutes into the first speaker’s presentation, when audience members were shouting out from the crowd.

“I understand that we’re all passionate about this and we all want to do the right thing, but this is not a WWF wrestling bout, OK?” Baldwin said. “This is a public hearing and we have to maintain decorum.”

Those who spoke in favour – more than half of the speakers list – cited the need for affordable housing and a revitalization of the city. Most praised the appealing design of the buildings, spoke highly of the proponents, Elegant Development, and lauded the retention of trees on the property as well as the developer’s promise to gift a one-acre parcel of land to the city for public use.

Danny Zigich, with his wife and young daughter in tow, said he supported the proposal because it offered an opportunity for young families like his to find a “new place to call home.”

“In a growing community, in a place that is gaining attention for its location, we have to be able to service the needs of the growing community,” Zigich said.

Those in opposition spoke of the project’s height, its location outside of the town centre – the city’s only area zoned for high density – and its departure from the OCP, currently under review.

White Rock Coalition councillors – Lynne Sinclair, Bill Lawrence, Megan Knight and Grant Meyer – were criticized for accepting campaign contributions totalling $12,000 from Elegant during last year’s civic election.

The timing of the hearing was also questioned, following the city’s purchase of its water utility for a yet-to-be-determined price from Epcor, which sold the lot to Elegant, pending rezoning approval.

Eric Ross told council the project doesn’t fit with the past, present or future land use of the area and questioned why the city wouldn’t wait until the OCP review was completed.

“With a new OCP underway, what’s the hurry?” Ross asked. “What’s the motivation for this urgency? Perhaps an investigation is necessary to find that out.”

Cyndie Richards – who also read a letter in opposition on behalf of former mayor Catherine Ferguson – suggested during her own presentation that council’s mind was already made up on the matter.

“The worst part about standing here in opposition is that I feel my efforts and my neighbours’ efforts are basically an effort in futility,” Richards said.

A concern addressed by many, including Susan Watkins, was the location of the development on land adjacent to the water utility. Watkins said she felt the city had not done its “due diligence” in addressing the potential impact on the water supply.

“These are issues that unfortunately have not been looked at or understood by the councillors that are now making the decisions for us,” Watkins said. “Unless we understand the difference between ground water and aquifer water, no one should be developing anything beside two well heads. Not one, but two.”

Speaking in favour of the project, Marine Drive business owner Brad Vollans said it would add “lifeblood” to the community.

“We need more people. It’s just urban economics,” he said, noting the only direction for the city to grow is upwards. “I need to know that there are people looking after the future of White Rock.”

Richard Riemersma, who said he is new to South Surrey, said he was “annoyed” when approached by petitioners over the summer – who gathered close to 2,000 names in opposition – and said the project should move forward.

“There’s 121 units here, folks. Not 500, not 1,000,” Riemersma said. “You’re wasting council’s time. Let’s move on, approve the project and make it  happen.”

Former councillor Louise Hutchinson – one of a handful of past White Rock politicians to have their say – noted traffic in the area, the “unusual” slope of the lot and soil-remediation issues as reasons for opposition. She described the project as “a wonderful building in exactly the wrong location,” before referencing late councillors Mary-Wade Anderson and Larry Robinson.

“I think that two former councillors would roll over in their graves for very different reasons to think that you’re going to put high density in there, one because she didn’t believe in any kind of density and the other because he thoroughly believed it should be in the town centre, which I do, too,” Hutchinson said.

CrowdCarol Blacklaws made reference to the Nov. 23 land use and planning meeting at which Knight, Lawrence, Meyer and Sinclair voted against staff recommendations to not proceed with the public hearing, noting the city’s director of planning and development Karen Cooper’s vast education and experience.

“It’s a crazy system when a notary, an entrepreneur, a BC Ferries employee and an educator can disregard the recommendations by a highly educated city planner,” Blacklaws said.

Upon conclusion of the hearing, council gave third reading to the OCP amendment bylaw. The third reading of the rezoning bylaw was carried with conditions to be met by the developer before final reading.  Couns. Helen Fathers and David Chesney voted against both.

Cooper told council that final reading could take place as early as the Dec. 14 council meeting.

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