Planners, developers duel over wetlands

Environmental professionals, hired by real estate developers, find their findings challenged by a new wave of city hall planners

Realtor Joe Varing says strict environmental measures have helped create “some of the best real estate developments in the country” | Submitted

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine.

The preservation of wetlands is a key issue affecting B.C.’s biggest industry: real estate, which accounted for 18% of provincial gross domestic product last year, compared with a 5.6% contribution from the province’s once-dominant resource sector, according to Statistics Canada.

All substantial real estate projects in B.C. are subject to an environmental audit conducted by qualified environmental professionals (QEPs), scientists all, before a development permit is issued by city hall.

But QEPs and developers say that the expensive, extensive – and mandatory – environmental studies are often overturned by a new breed of younger and more environmentally concerned city hall planners, which can result in huge real estate losses.

This is frustrating but also understandable, says biologist Harm Gross, president of Next Environmental Inc. of Burnaby and a QEP who has been conducting environmental studies for years.

Gross notes that B.C.’s Contaminated Sites Regulation now covers more than 10,000 pages in scores of volumes, and there are 38 other bits of provincial and federal legislation that relate to wetland conservation. This includes B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act, which was introduced in 2016 and has been continually modified ever since, with the latest amendments made in December of 2019.

Other wetlands regulations include the Agricultural Land Commission Act, the Transportation Act and the federal Fisheries Act. The two-decades old federal government’s No Net Loss Policy can also apply to the protection of certain fish, migratory birds and federally listed species at risk.

“It’s easy to see that there is a lot of legalese to draw on when a municipal authority argues the QEP is wrong,” Gross says.

Yet, despite all the legislation meant to contain it, the loss of B.C. wetlands has been unremitting, according to the Wetland Stewardship Partnership (WSP), whose members include the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the BC Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

“Wetlands cover almost 7% of B.C.’s land area, but are being destroyed and damaged at an alarming rate,” according to the WSP. The partnership claims that losses include 70% of the original wetlands in the Fraser River Delta, 70% of wetlands in the Victoria region and 85% of natural wetlands in the South Okanagan.

“Today the province is losing wetlands primarily to draining and filling for new [residential] subdivisions and industrial development,” according to the WSP.

The issue is further complicated due to the modern complexity and scale of mixed-use development, much of which is being done from sites that require rezoning, such as from farming to industrial, or industrial to residential, Gross adds.

For real estate developers, the stakes are enormous. A civic ruling that a drainage ditch is actually a potential fish-bearing stream can carve a meandering 60-metre wide no-go zone through the centre of an acreage, making it impossible to develop.

Both developers and QEPs say that a younger generation of city planners are much more zealous when it comes to environmental interpretations than those they replaced.

“The pendulum appears to have swung from one extreme – mass wetland destruction – to the other: preservation of all land that can be wetted. It is easy to understand why developers feel slighted when a city regulator rejects an expert’s opinion, seemingly out of hand,” Gross says.

None of the real estate developers contacted by BIV Magazine would go on record with their concerns.

“I have a permit application in process and I don’t want it to go to the bottom of the list,” explains one Fraser Valley residential developer in what was typical response.

A major developer told of a 2018 conflict over a drainage ditch that City of Surrey planners designated as part of a wetland, in direct conflict with the findings of the developer’s QEP, whose decision had been endorsed by the province.

“It cost us an 18-month delay and a huge amount of money before it got resolved,” the developer says.

Other developers say they have run into similar conflicts in the Township of Langley, Delta and Squamish.

The issue has become so contentious that the Urban Development Institute (UDI) emailed its developer members in April asking if they had been affected. A UDI staffer, who asked not to be named, says they have received a substantial response.

Surrey, B.C.’s fastest-growing city, is in the process of setting up re-zoning and density development for the proposed SkyTrain extension corridor along the Fraser Highway towards Langley, and is aware of the conflicts.

Representing Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum on a panel of Fraser Valley mayors convened by the UDI in Langley this year, Surrey Councillor Linda Annis said the city wants to bring “clarity” to the development process.

She acknowledged that the strict enforcement of setbacks for water – normally at least 30 metres on each side of a watercourse – may cause issues for landowners and developers, limiting the amount they can build, or impact a project’s financing.

“But as developers are negotiating the purchases of these properties, that’s something that they should be taking into consideration,” she said. “Where it gets muddied is if we’re not clear what the environmental setbacks need to be, and I think Surrey now is doing a pretty good job of that.”

On April 30, the City of Surrey announced it was exploring ways to help large-scale real estate developments in the city, including “expediting the review and processing of environmental development and erosion sediment control permits.”

Joe Varing, a Fraser Valley real estate agent who specializes in land transactions, voices some sympathy for city planners. He notes that strict environmental measures in Metro Vancouver have helped lead “to some of the best real estate developments in the country.”

“They are just doing their job,” the president of Varing Marketing Group says. “It is just part of the process that we all have to work with.”

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine. Read BIV Magazine: The Sustainability Issue here.