Lack of consultation led to conflict – report

Consultant Review of Brookswood, Coulter Berry controversies says staff and council acted properly, but failed to win public trust

A crowd filled council chambers in March of 2014 for the public hearing on the Brookswood/Fernridge community plan.

A crowd filled council chambers in March of 2014 for the public hearing on the Brookswood/Fernridge community plan.

A report by an outside consultant concludes Langley Township politicians and staff lost the trust of residents even though they acted properly during the Brookswood/Fernridge Coulter Berry building battles.

A memo to council from Peter Whitelaw, titled “Review of Brookswood/Fernridge and Coulter Berry processes: what happened” says resistance arose because of confusion over the nature of the proposals and a failure to consult widely.

The report was drafted for the mayor’s standing committee on public engagement, set up to overhaul communication with residents in the wake of last year’s bitter battle over increased housing density in the semi-rural Brookswood/Fernridge neighbourhood.

After several public hearings, dominated by opponents of the plan, Township council voted it down at an April meeting, overriding the mayor and the only councillor who backed the proposal, Grant Ward (who lost his seat in the November election).

The Whitelaw memo suggests the redevelopment of Willoughby into a high-density residential region cast a long shadow over the Brookswood/Fernridge planning process.

The attempted overhaul of the 1987 community plan for Brookswood/Fernridge was the first since Willoughby, “where the experience has been decidedly mixed to date,” Whitelaw writes.

“No area of Willoughby has completely built out, schools have lagged behind population growth and transit service has not kept up,” the memo says.

As well, Whitelaw says the details of the 1987 plan, which called for a “significant” increase in population, were not well-known by residents.

He also blames media coverage of the process, including reporting by The Times, for confusing residents.

The Times, he says, did not use the correct name for the planning process, an apparent reference to stories that identified it as the “Brookswood” plan instead of “Brookswood/Fernridge.”

Whitelaw also says media coverage confused the update of the Griffiths Neighbourhood plan with the Brookswood/Fernridge Community Plan.

But he also says the decision to begin working on the Griffiths plan before the Brookswood/Fernridge Community Plan was finished, created confusion because it “could be interpreted to mean that the Township considered the Community Plan to be a fait accompli [thus] engendering mistrust of the Township’s authenticity in engaging the community in the planning process.”

It didn’t help that the projected population increase jumped from a maximum of less than 36,000 to 42,000 without any explanation to residents for the 16 per cent hike, Whitelaw says.

That some critics complained about the fact developers were funding the planning was also an issue.

And there were also “no meetings with community groups, formal or informal … by the planning team,” Whitelaw notes.

The report calls for several changes to avoid future controversies, mostly aimed at conveying to residents exactly what is happening, including underlining the independence of the planning process even when it is funded by builders, and ending the practice of jumping the gun by launching a local planning process before a regional plan has been finished.

The assessment of the Coulter Berry battle suggests council shouldn’t have been surprised by the negative reaction to a building that “proposed to push the limits” of existing design guidelines in Fort Langley.

It observes that while council’s decision to approve a heritage alteration permit to allow the bigger building may have been legal, it amounted to “a repudiation of the history of heritage protection in the area.”

To avoid more conflict and controversy in Fort Langley, the report calls for a “broader community dialogue” on heritage issues.

It says the report is “not aware that such a dialogue has taken place and [encourages] the Township to carefully undertake one in the near future.”