EDITORIAL: Eco group must be heard

Surrey must show its commitment to the environment.

Surrey is dangerously close to sending an unfortunate message to its environmental watchdog – again.

The 12-member Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), which advises council on ecological issues, has been through significant change over the last decade.

In 2004, the EAC had huge talent on board, including Dr. Roy Strang and Dr. Tom Godwin.

Back then, the issue of the day was tree loss. Over the span of five years, the city had issued 50,000 permits to cut down trees of significance in the city.

At the time, Godwin told The Leader he had asked council “umpteen” times to hire a consultant to review developments, with an eye to preserving trees.

It was a novel idea, largely ignored. Minutes of the EAC going back to 2002 back up Godwin’s claim.

In addition, the committee had asked council to hold off on developing Campbell Heights, an immense business park built in 2003.

The development ended up being a big black eye for the city, with the David Suzuki Foundation calling it one of the worst examples of salmon habitat destruction in B.C.

The warnings from Godwin and the EAC were ignored by the administration of day, and  Godwin resigned from the committee, leaving in his wake a stinging rebuke of council.

“Although we are supposed to be advisory to council, we are completely ignored, and our suggestions fall on deaf ears,” Godwin wrote in his resignation letter.

Strang said at the end of his term he agreed with Godwin.

“We may be the watchdog, but we have no teeth.”

The next committee included local environmental powerhouse and former civic planner Rosemary Zelinka. She demanded to see the city’s Environmentally Sensitive Areas Plan, was refused, but after pushing hard enough, the committee was able to view it behind closed doors. All copies were collected at the end of the meeting. Zelinka was later terminated from her volunteer position.

The subsequent committee was a shadow of its former self. Between 2003 and 2006, the committee returned more than seven recommendations to council annually.

In 2007, the committee met 10 times to consider the city’s use of herbicides on boulevards, stream damage in Campbell Heights and the new municipal garbage contract. Yet the group forwarded no recommendations to council.

The only recommendation from the EAC in 2008 was a call for help to council to define the committee’s role.

By fall of that year, to its credit, the city created a powerful new committee. It now includes members such as chair Al Schultze, who holds a PhD; engineer Bob Campbell; horticultural expert Martin Harcourt; along with Bonnie Burnside and Bill Stewart, to name a few.

The committee was instrumental in helping draft Surrey’s pesticide bylaw, and reported extensively on recycling and the Ecosystem Management Study.

Last month, a Neighbourhood Concept Plan for Grandview Heights calling for development of environmentally sensitive areas in South Surrey landed with the committee. It caused significant alarm and prompted an immediate request from the EAC to halt the plan. The committee also wanted an audience with council. Instead, they were referred to staff and a citizens advisory committee.

The EAC wrote to council Monday expressing its “surprise, disappointment and frustration” for not hearing them.

Mayor Dianne Watts told The Leader Tuesday the committee will be heard, just not yet.

In fact, the EAC should not only be heard, but its advice heeded. History has shown to do otherwise comes at a tremendous cost – to the dedicated people who sit on the committee and the health of the environment.

To do anything less would be to undermine the importance of the EAC and send the message that protecting the environment is not a priority.

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