Column: A fitting first test for community planning team

It is most fitting that Langley Township is putting its public engagement strategy to its first test, with the establishment of a community planning team (CPT) for Brookswood-Fernridge.

It was in Brookswood-Fernridge where the last Township council ran up against the wishes of the community, when it dealt with the deeply unpopular Griffith Neighbourhood Plan.

Hearings on the plan were lengthy and the level of interest was high. While council eventually rejected the plan by a 7-2 vote, its approach to public engagement was judged by many to be severely challenged.

Three members of the last council were defeated in November, 2014 — the first councillors to lose their seats since 2002 — and this was at least partially due to the pro-development impression they left with residents. Only one of them, former councillor Grant Ward, had supported the plan at the final vote.

The Brookswood-Fernridge debacle also gave rise to the very successful Unelection campaign which played a significant role in the defeat of the three.

That campaign had recommended that five members of council, including Mayor Jack Froese, be “unelected.”

Froese, to his credit, recognized that there was deep dissatisfaction with the way many members of the public learned about the development plans for their area. Shortly after the 2014 election, he appointed a standing committee to come up with a better method of engaging and communicating with residents. The committee recognized that traditional methods of communication don’t always reach people. It also recognized that getting people involved early in the process is ideal, but difficult.

This has led to the CPT. Langley Township is seeking 17 people to be on the team, and has set specific  criteria for representatives. Six must own property and/or reside in the undeveloped area (generally known as Fernridge, and mostly south of 36 Avenue). Two must own property and/or reside in the developed area of Brookswood.

One must live in a manufactured home within the community plan boundary, and two must own property and/or reside in the rural area just outside the community plan boundary.

Both of these additions are critical. Manufactured homes are one of the very few affordable home ownership options left for people with more  modest incomes these days, and there are several such parks in the Brookswood-Fernridge area. The appointment of people from adjacent rural areas recognizes that development in one area has significant effects on immediate neighbours.

The business and development community are not forgotten. Two task force members must own businesses within the community plan area, or be members of Brookswood Village merchants Association. One must represent development trade organizations, such as Urban Development Institute or the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association.

In addition, the CPT is to include a representative of a local environmental organization, one from the Brookswood Senior Citizens Centre and one from a school parent advisory council.

Such a CPT will represent the broad spectrum of interests that were all part of the last set of hearings into development plans for Brookswood-Fernridge. Disparate issues like the effect of development on well water and the aquifer; the number of significant trees in the area; density and transportation options were all brought up during the hearings in 2014. It is important that these and other issues be raised early at the CPT level, so they are properly addressed in any community plan which eventually comes down the pike.

One of the challenges the Township heard about when looking into improving public engagement is that many citizens do not become aware of development plans until quite late in the process. At that time, much has already been invested in such plans and it isn’t always easy to make major changes.

Very rarely will a large number of citizens become involved early in the process. They simply do not have the time or commitment to get involved at that stage. That’s why it is so important that there be a broadly representative committee, with as many interests as possible, which is active right from the beginning.

The Township is accepting applications from potential CPT members until May 1.

It will be an interesting process. If it works, it will set a high bar for any future major development plans in Langley Township.

Retired Langley Times editor Frank Bucholtz continues to share  his thoughts on all things political on his Frankly Speaking blog, frankbucholtz.blogspot.com.