A spokesperson for a local group concerned about biodiversity says the construction of a house with ocean view in Gordon Head is yet another example of what will happen if Saanich does not replace the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw with comparable legislation.
Merie Beauchamp, a spokesperson for Saanich Action for the Environment (SAFE), said the construction of a house at 4355 Gordon Head Rd. represents yet “another troubling environmental loss” while Saanich currently sits without environmental protection on private property. Voices like Beauchamp have also pointed to comparable developments elsewhere in the municipality as evidence for the need of stronger protection of biodiversity on private property.
The municipality is currently working on a process to replace the EDPA, but the nature and timing of this replacement remains at best uncertain.
Beauchamp said the construction of house including cliff-side swimming pool will lead to the loss of a rare coastal Garry oak grove in arguing that the EDPA would have protected it, and reiterating the need for stronger protection. Photographs and videos show that the owners blasted portions of the property during construction, which started in early 2019.
“It is examples like this…that point to our municipality needing stronger policy and bylaws to protect the environment, from ourselves, during this critical time where we have a biodiversity crisis,” she said in an email to council. “Many scientists would argue that biodiversity loss is much worse than climate change. It seems disingenuous to see councillors rushing to the media to sound the climate change crisis alarm while our own sensitive ecosystems remain vulnerable and unprotected to development. It’s embarrassing, really.”
Saanich’s previous council rescinded the EDPA on Nov. 6, 2017 after months of frequently divisive public debate during which critics accused the EDPA of being excessively restrictive and ineffective. Supporters, meanwhile, acknowledged some of these arguments, but recommended reform instead of rejection in stressing the need for specific legislation designed to protect sensitive environmental areas.
Anti-EDPA voices included among others the owners of the property at 4355 Gordon Head Rd., Brenda and Douglas MacAskill.
“We would like to once again voice our support for your decision to rescind the EDPA bylaw,” they wrote in an email to then-mayor Richard Atwell, among the earliest and fiercest critics of the EPDA, dated March 3, 2018. “We have attended every meeting regarding the EDPA, understand the ramifications of rescinding the bylaw, as well as the importance of formulating a revised bylaw which benefits the [municipality] as a whole.” Their immediate neighbours had also spoken out against the EDPA, arguing that it undermines property values.
Kelsie McLeod, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich, confirmed that the property was “previously subject to the old EDPA” due to the coastal bluff sensitive ecosystem designated on the high rocky marine shoreline.
Correcting earlier comments, she said Saanich had received a biologist report as part of a request in 2016 to remove this property from the EDPA.
“This exclusion was under consideration by Saanich when the EDPA was rescinded in 2018,” she said. “At this point, Saanich cannot speculate on how the old EDPA would have influenced this development or its approval.”
McLeod had said earlier it is unclear if the development of this property has impacted the coastal bluff.
“The extent of the coastal bluff was not surveyed by staff biologists or a consulting biologist,” she said earlier. “Without this information, we would only be able to speculate as to how the old EDPA would have influenced this development or not.”
So what accounts for the correction? “An error occurred when gathering information to respond to this request [from the Saanich News] within the original timeline, but now after further review with more time, we confirm that a biologist report is on file for this property from the exclusion request that was filed in 2016,” said McLeod. “The information provided by staff focused on materials related to the current development and its approval.”
Commenting on the issue, Mayor Fred Haynes said council continues to look at ways to “fairly balance” environmental protection with the needs of the community. “We are actively moving forward with our environmental policy framework and the biodiversity strategy,” he said.
Another uncertainty concerns the question of whether the property complies with Saanich’s sewer service bylaw. The previous council had voted to include the property in the service sewer area in August 2018. But maps also show most of the house lies outside the actual service area.
When asked to confirm whether the house lies outside the sewer service area, MacLeod said staff are reviewing the project “to determine whether construction is proceeding in a manner that is consistent with the bylaw.”
This raises the question of why Saanich has not stopped construction if it is not clear whether construction is consistent with the bylaw.
“At this time there is no basis to stop construction,” said Megan Catalano, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich. “The owner is building in accordance with the plans submitted and approved through the permit process. The file review will determine whether additional steps are appropriate.”
The Saanich News has reached out to the MacAskills for comment by way of an intermediary working for Horizon Contracting after visiting the site, and will update this story, if and when they reply.