North Saanich could change rules around outdoor burning as early as this fall following receipt of results from a survey said to be available by early July.
North Saanich currently permits outdoor burning on selected days from mid-November through mid-May. While the practice has a long history in the rural community with agricultural roots, it has met growing opposition for public health and environmental reasons.
Key developments in this evolution include among others revised provincial regulations released in the fall of 2019. While they generally do not prohibit burning, they limit open burning to periods with meteorological conditions that promise to minimize the harmful effects of outdoor burning.
The updated regulations place North Saanich in a “[provincially] recognized high smoke sensitivity zone,” a status that means that “outdoor burning for the purpose of eliminating green waste should occur only when the [provincial] ventilation index indicates that it is in the GOOD category,” according to a report from staff.
In exchange for limiting outdoor burning through a series of measures, including higher permit fees, staff has also been recommending increased use of the municipality’s green waste drop off facility.
North Saanich issued 600 burning permits from 2006 to 2019. According to staff, each permit holders burns about four cubic metres each year for a total of 2,400 cubic metres burned — or about the same volume dropped off at the green waste facility on an annual basis.
When weighing the ecological costs of burning green waste versus driving it to the drop off facility, Mayor Geoff Orr estimated that burning roughly generated about 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions than driving the material to the drop-off facility. But the public also heard that the ecological argument in favour of limiting burning comes with an economic hitch.
The green waste drop off facility currently operates at a deficit, a reality that may prompt North Saanich to start selling green waste, a move with potential costs and regulatory obstacles.
These and other issues loom in the background as staff put the final touches on the survey scheduled to go online in early July. The municipality also plans a print version through its newsletter going out to households. The survey would be available until mid-August. Staff would then incorporate the feedback into revisions, which could come into effect for the start of the current burning season. This said, the public also heard that the municipality faces tight time lines and residents could be subject to existing regulations for the opening part of the burning season, then the new ones for the concluding part.
Council support for the online survey was unanimous.
“This exercise is really good,” said Coun. Brett Smyth. “We are not going to appease the two disparate sides of the conversation, but we have to make a commitment to our residents, to the health of the place we live. This is moving in that direction in a very serious way.”
This said, Coun. Murray Weisenberger voiced his frustration with the pace of progress on the file.
“If I had my way — and I am not going to make this motion, but I would really like to — I would ban burning on residential properties under 0.5 hectares,” he said. Weisenberger acknowledged that this position lacks political support. “But that is where I would like to go.”
Coun. Celia Stock called on staff to consider the diversity of the community in formulating any changes. They are liable to generate no small measure if the correspondence offers any indication. In a letter of council, resident Paige Gibson expressed strident opposition to an all-out ban, citing environmental, economic and social reasons that include among others the prohibitive costs of dropping off green waste and paradoxically, fire risks.
“Until there is regular, municipally funded pick-up of unlimited quantities of domestically-generated deadwood and flammable debris, it would in my opinion be deeply irresponsible to prohibit property owners from burning which, absent a wood-chipper, is the only disposal method possible onsite (tree branches do not compost),” she wrote.
This said, North Saanich council has signed off on exploring the costs of limited green waste pick up.
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