A regional strategy for Metro Vancouver

On July 29, 2011, the Metro Vancouver regional authority adopted a strategy to promote a greener, cleaner, neater, sweeter future for the region’s 2.1 million inhabitants.  (Abbotsford and its population of 123,864 is part of Metro for the purposes of regional parks, but not part of this plan.)

The unanimous adoption of the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy, replacing the “Livable Region” strategy of the mid-1990s, was a big achievement for Metro, with its 22 diverse municipalities. The plan, predictably, is inoffensive in its intentions, and  it has generated little controversy, outside of a procedural wrangle among municipalities over the review formula.

There have been some critics, even passionate critics.  A Vancouver group set up a well-stocked site called MetroVanWatch, although by the time it appeared the municipalities were already in the process of approving the plan.  This site is persuasive in arguing that the Metro authority effectively excluded the general public from influencing the plan after a round of public meetings in 2010.  

With regard to substance, the heaviest criticism of the plan has been related to farmland and rural areas.  The focus on protecting farmland may be the biggest new ingredient in this plan. There is also a nod in the direction of protecting unused areas of industrial zoning, which tend to be converted for residential use due to local political pressures.  However, some current proposals for conversion of farmland are grandfathered as “special study areas,” and there are also mechanisms to allow the Metro Board to overturn the plan to allow the rezoning of farmland, rural lands and industrial lands.

As far as I can see, the critics are evenly split on whether the Strategy as adopted is too restrictive or not restrictive enough, and politicians have attempted a decent compromise.  Realistically, I can’t imagine any group of politicians approving a Strategy that would tie their hands with regard to all future decisions.

Most components of the new Strategy — build complete communities, promote transportation options, protect green space — were prominent in the Livable Region plan…a plan that some people would say has failed, because the regional authority was too weak to enforce it. Yes, we have made modest progress on town centres, and transit, and most agricultural land has been spared from the bulldozers thanks to provincial legislation; but outside of downtown Vancouver and a few Skytrain stops, we haven’t exactly seen urban transformation.

What can the regional authority do to enforce the provisions of the Strategy if a municipal council decides to ignore the rules?  From my reading, there are two avenues.  First, the Metro board of the day can gum up the adoption of local Official Plans.  Let me know if you think this is a serious political liability.  Second, and more drastically, Metro can refuse to build trunk sewer and water lines into new subdivisions that are deemed to be in violation.  I look forward to seeing the first test of this provision.

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