Langley City frustrated over school site fees

Six months after the Langley School District announced plans to more than double school site acquisition fees (SSAC) charged to developers, some Langley City council members are still searching for an ear to hear their concerns about the dramatic increase.

On Monday night, council debated its next step in opposing the new fee structure, after receiving a copy of a letter from Education Minister (and former City mayor) Peter Fassbender to Wendy Johnson, chair of the Langley Board of Education.

In it, Fassbender rejected the City’s request that separate school site acquisition charges be established for the City and the Township.

The reason for the ministry’s decision, Fassbender wrote, is that objections raised by the City did not meet the necessary criteria spelled out in the Local Government Act, because they did not indicate a proposed eligible school site requirement to which it objects, nor the reasons for the objection.

Under the current proposal, once implemented, the charges assessed to developers for single family dwellings would rise immediately from $354 to $737, while fees for townhouses and condos would jump to $590 per unit, from the current $283.

The school district came up with the new figures last year, after it hired  Urban Systems Limited to look into how much Langley charges the development community, and learned it has been charging significantly less than neighbouring municipalities.

The City has argued that because it is growing at a much slower rate than the Township, it should not be assessed at the same rate for acquiring property on which to build new schools. The 10-year projected growth in the number of students in the City is just 370, compared to more than 8,000 in the Township.

And while there may potentially be a need for a new high school in the City, a specific location hasn’t yet been nailed down.

“Of course we didn’t specify where, because we’re not sure where any school sites would be. We have an idea,” said Councillor Gayle Martin.

During multiple meetings with the school district, the City lacked some necessary information, said Councillor Dave Hall.

The former chair of the Langley School Board and retired teacher joined acting mayor Ted Schaffer in meeting with the board of education after learning about the fee hike last September. At those meetings, the City representatives were never told they had to address specific sites, Hall said.

Council members were also under the impression that if the City rejected the school district’s assessment, the issue would be sent to mediation.

However that option was also quashed by Fassbender, even though Johnson sent a letter to the ministry of education, requesting that a facilitator be appointed.

A staff report prepared by Gerald Minchuk, the City’s director of development services, and endorsed by CAO Francis Cheung, recommended that the City take no further action on the issue, noting that any legal recourse would be both time consuming and costly.

Hall vehemently disagreed with the suggestion.

“Staff’s position was to simply walk away. I believe we need to proceed along a course of calling into question the way the (province) has treated us,” said Hall.

“To simply walk away is not good enough.”

According to Cheung, pursuing legal action could cost as much as $30,000.

A vote to seek an opinion from the provincial ombudsman failed in a 3-3 tie, with Councillors Martin, Teri James and Rosemary Wallace opposed, while Hall’s motion to seek resolution through legal channels failed to find a seconder and died.

“To clarify, we’re not going to the ombudsperson and we’re not seeking a legal opinion, we’re only sending a letter. Is that where we’re at?” asked Hall.

“Yes,” replied Schaffer.

“That’s disappointing,” said Hall.

Responding to the charge that the City had not been adequately consulted about the increase, Johnson said that Langley School District secretary-treasurer, David Green, and the consultant did “the best job possible” in consulting with the City.

“We did a lot of work in that area to answer their questions,” she said.

Martin also criticized what she deemed a lack of proper consultation with the school board.

Referring to correspondence from the ministry of education, Martin noted:  “It says the development of SSACs should provide adequate opportunity for input from stakeholders. We’re a stakeholder.”

“David Green (school district secretary-treasurer) came to us proposing new SSACs and basically said, ‘This is what it is. Like it or lump it.’

“It was a big surprise to all of us sitting around this table that our fees were going to double in price,” Martin said.

Cheung added that seeking the input of the provincial ombudsman — a suggestion made by Hall — would have little effect because it would not overrule the minister’s decision.

“The only way to get change is to go through the dispute process.”

“I reject that there is no benefit to (approaching) the ombudsperson,” said Hall.

If the ombudsman finds that the City has been wronged it might raise the profile of the provincial regulations and the need for change, he said.

The last time the SSAC were assessed was a decade or more ago, noted Hall.

“When it was not pursued by the council of the day, perhaps that’s what set us up for this situation now.

“The municipality should deal with this in the near future and not wait to get hammered again.”

“I believe what has been added tonight to the depth of the report enables us to file an appeal — even though we’re told one is not available,” said Hall.

“I hate to spend $30,000, but I don’t want to roll over,” said Martin. “This is going to hurt the development community.”

“We’re really between a rock and a hard place.”

Johnson said the school district has been and remains open to conversation with the City, adding she was surprised when her request for a facilitator was denied by the education minister.

“It went to mediation last time,” she noted.

“Last time” was in 2001, added Johnson. Since then, she noted, property costs have risen dramatically. The consultant compared Langley’s SACC to surrounding communities, including Surrey.

“We certainly didn’t go as high as Surrey, because we don’t have the kind of development Surrey has,” said Johnson.

As to why the two Langleys were assessed a single fee structure, Johnson said that is the general practice of the province, though as far as she is aware, it is not policy.

And though they are governed separately, from a education perspective the lines between the two municipalities are less well defined, said Johnson.

She offered a rough estimate that 40 per cent of City children attend school in the Township. As well, many Township residents are educated in the City at the Montessori and Fine Arts schools, Johnson noted.

“We can’t force kids to attend schools in their neighbourhood,” she said. “They’re free to go wherever they like.”

The school district adopted the new SSAC rates at its Tuesday, March 11 meeting. The increase will take effect 60 days after that date.

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