A Tale of Empowerment

A Tale of Empowerment: A community meets the challenge of the Alternative Approval Process

Upon reading the Cable Bay rezoning application to the City of Nanaimo, I immediately knew we would need a model of the proposed development. Most people can imagine 100 houses, but almost no one can visualise 1990 residential units. This project was so large, that it was doubtful that even the politicians could truly understand its magnitude…and impact.

Through the cold, rainy months of this past winter, most of my spare time was invested in that model. Using the developer’s application data, drawings and illustrations, and the city’s topographical maps, an accurate three-dimensional representation emerged. Even in miniature form, the proposal was shocking. A huge area of 519 treed acres would be turned into four-storey condos, tiny residential lots, a hotel and a golf course. To make matters worse, the city itself acknowledged the area as "environmentally sensitive"…a special place with Gary Oak meadows and several rare species, bisected by the beloved Cable Bay trail. No one seemed to care that this urban sprawl, 15 kilometres from the city centre, would squash the rural community of Cedar.

While the model took shape, the people of Cedar became increasingly horrified. Most of this land (422 acres) was part of the City of Nanaimo only because of the inclusion of Harmac for tax-base purposes, and the other 97 acres were to be annexed from RDN Area A. The only road access was through Cedar, and the people of Cedar (and Nanaimo) had enjoyed the Cable Bay trail and adjoining trails for many years. It was infuriating that the city could make such a drastic rezoning without the approval of the community most impacted, and even worse that the city could unilaterally ask the province to annex those 97 acres. As a community, Cedar felt the full weight of disempowerment. Our citizens became frustrated and angry. Resignation began to set in.

The completed model had been sitting in my studio for weeks when City Hall finally made its announcement. The Alternative Approval Process would be used to gain the consent of the people of the City of Nanaimo with regard to the annexation. In this process, the onus would be on individual citizens to complete and deliver an Elector Response Form indicating opposition to the annexation. To block the annexation or to force a referendum would require the signatures of 10% (5,815) of the eligible voters of Nanaimo…within 30 working days (deadline 4:30 PM August 5). As far as we knew, no other city the size of Nanaimo had ever succeeded in collecting so many responses. Emails started to fly. Could it be done?

The moment had arrived. In the model, we would have a great symbol as well as a useful tool. I immediately offered to organise the volunteers, never once thinking we would not break the 10% barrier. Within hours, messages began to pour in from more than 75 excited and concerned citizens of both Nanaimo and Cedar. Within days we were implementing a strategy that included individual efforts plus a regular schedule for collecting signatures down at the Nanaimo waterfront. The universe was giving us a magnificent green light.

Blessed with good weather and several marine festivals, and undaunted by those who tried to remove us, the waterfront group experienced huge success. The citizens of Nanaimo were not happy. Many of them knew little about the development proposal and were horrified to learn of the annexation. Many of them were offended by the Alternative Approval Process, the governmental equivalent of negative option billing. And many of them were angry that City Council had chosen such an onerous process and then done the minimum required advertising.

Empowerment and success went hand in hand for those six short weeks. It was a highly charged group that finally delivered our stack of 7,256 signed forms on August 5th. The final result? A full 13.6% of eligible voters had said no to the annexation and/or the process. A full 13.6% wanted open discussion and a referendum.

They got neither. Faced with the prospect of significant public scrutiny, the developer withdrew the annexation request. Faced with the prospect of an angry populace at election time, City Council bulled ahead, setting a rezoning hearing before even seeing the amended application, and amending the new Official Community Plan before ratification. Why so much haste? In true Nanaimo tradition, this Council is a mere facilitator for development. Given such an obvious show of strength, Councillors were visibly affected and in a big hurry to placate their developer friends before the people might prevail.

The community of Cedar is elated at fighting off the City’s greed, and the people of Nanaimo are glad to have pushed back at their developer-driven City Council. In the process, both of our communities have become empowered to work even harder to prevent urban sprawl from eating up our farm and forest land. We have experienced the sweet taste of success, and we’re preparing for the next battle.

Beverley Eert is owner of the Nanaimo River Studio in Cedar. She is an architectural designer and musician, and can be reached by email at eert@shaw.ca or by phone at 250-722-2606.