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Update: Southlands public hearing concludes abruptly on Saturday
Mayor Lois Jackson suddenly and unexpectedly concluded the oral submissions for a marathon session of the Southlands public hearings on Saturday afternoon (Nov. 2), after having heard from speakers over five days beginning last Monday.
Jackson said after 30 hours of public comment, 450 speakers, and 1,400 submitted letters, not including petitions, that council was satisfied it had heard enough oral submissions. She said council would continue to accept written comments at Delta's municipal hall until Thursday, Nov. 7, at noon.
She added that council would reconvene the public hearing on Friday, Nov. 8 at 9 a.m. in council chambers, but would not re-open oral submissions.
The move angered several people who were still waiting to speak at the South Delta Rec Centre in Tsawwassen. Speaker 452 had just been heard, and the end was in sight with 474 speakers signed up to address council when Jackson made her decision.
Southlands opponent Debbie McBride said that if Jackson had warned people prior to signing up today that it would be the last day for oral submission then it would have been fair.
"If she had said, how many people are there left in this room who want to speak, and she maybe would have got 10," said McBride, who gave up her spot early on Monday to the Semiahmoo First Nation to speak. "And she could have said after they have spoken the oral submissions are closed."
"There were people standing here who had waited for hours—whether I agree with them or not it doesn't make a difference—the fact is we're here, we should have been allowed to speak."
Once the marathon hearings were adjourned, developer Sean Hodgins was upbeat and confident.
"I loved it. I really thought it was a good process. I pretty much expected to hear what I've heard," he said.
Hodgins said about "95 per cent" of what was heard was "pretty fair comment," whether the speakers were in favour or opposed, with a small percentage getting personal.
He added it was emotional for him to see how many supporters of the development took time out of their day to come and speak in favour.
"I heard people who are sincerely concerned about how the development might impact them and I want to make sure that if there are going to impacts, if this thing were going to be approved, that I will do my best to... I can't run roughshod over people."
Hodgins said the process is a long way from being over.
Should council make a decision on Friday to conclude the public hearing and grant it third reading, the application would go before Metro Vancouver's regional government for a public hearing to amend the Regional Growth Strategy. That means the people of Tsawwassen could once again be in for another round of long public hearings.
After listening to over 350 speakers argue for and against the Southlands proposal over four days of public hearings, Delta Council appears no closer to finishing the most contentious development in the history of the municipality.
Although the exact number of supporters and opponents could not be independently confirmed, a member from the proponent Century Group said support has held firmly at about 42 per cent, with the rest either opposed or undecided.
At stake is 217 hectares of mainly undeveloped farmland, of which Century Group is offering to develop 45 hectares into mixed housing. The rest (roughly 80 per cent) would be converted into active farmland, or protected as wildlife habitat at a cost to the developer of more than $9 million, and donated to the public.
The land slated for development is on agricultural land which is least arable, with soil studies indicating class 5 agriculture, defined as being "generally limited to the production of perennial crops or other specially adapted crops."
However, the majority of speakers so far do not like the idea of putting a single house on the land, regardless of the soil quality. Donna Higenbottam said the long-term benefits of the proposal are not positive for Tsawwassen residents.
"I think it's very short-sighted to give up any agricultural land," she said.
Gabrielle Jaehrlich said the majority vote has never been honoured by council, or else the proposal would not be back for an eighth time. She echoed dozens of other voices who spoke previously about the concerns of traffic and roads.
"We do not have the infrastructure to support this development," she said.
But Christine Klukas said the proposal to donate 80 per cent of the land to the public is better than leaving all of it in private hands. She said the irrigation and drainage improvements made by the developer will enhance the lands, while wildlife habitat can be turned into parkland and protected sensitive wetlands.
Allan Miles agreed that donating 80 per cent of the land is "extremely uncommon" for a developer.
"You have an unparalleled opportunity in front of you," he said, adding the proposal is at the forefront of sustainable urban agriculture.
Miles said it offers Delta residents a place where they can both "live and work" and offered the hope that building the subdivision would lure a post secondary institution to Delta. He pointed to the failure of Kwantlen University to build a campus in Patterson Park in Ladner, and suggested that solution may be found in Boundary Bay.
Not everybody was clear in their position. Margaret Ferguson said she likes the development but not where it's located. Like many people, she suggested it should be located along 56th Street and close to the Tsawwassen Town Centre Mall.
Century Group has addressed this concern previously, by stating the highest quality soils are located closest to 56th Street as a reason for not wanting to develop there.
Janice Wasik said the development is the best way to bring "healing" to a divided community, since an "all-or-nothing" position is not a good compromise.
"Let everybody win something, even if some win more than others," she said.
As the public hearing wore on into the evening the number of supporters increased, including speaker Bob Bracken who took a jab at the logo printed on the red hats of the opponents.
"No houses doesn't really mean no houses," he said. "It means no houses, except our houses."
Gordon "Buzz" Spetifore, whose family originally owned and farmed the land until George Spetifore decided to try and put 2,000 homes and a golf course on the land, also spoke tonight.
He said the family never farmed on the land being proposed for housing because the soil quality wasn't good enough. The fresh water springs that existed wasn't enough to irrigate the land properly and they ran a dairy farm instead. Ground water supplied their herd until they exceeded 50 cows, and then had to get a connection from the Corporation of Delta.
Spetifore said George Hodgins, the father of current developer Sean Hodgins, helped his family greatly with drainage on the land, which is located largely on a floodplain.
Brent Kelly, a third generation farmer who worked the Southlands property for 15 years, said that despite their best efforts to improve drainage on the property farming was not viable.
"It is the last piece of property that we begin to farm in the spring (usually the end of May), and the first property we are flooded out in the fall," he said.
After this year's four-inch rainfall in September, Kelly said he and his daughter observed the water was running from the ditch into the field and cost a crop loss of $75,000 to his 18 hectares (45 acres) of yellow potatoes.
"Century Group's plan to develop the Southlands is the most realistic and ideal way to preserve and enhance the farmland there and provide the open green space that the community desires," he said.
Kelly received the loudest applause of the night, which lasted for close to half a minute.
The Southlands public hearings will continue again tomorrow (Saturday) at 10 a.m. Mayor Lois Jackson did not say how long they will run.
Although 358 speakers have been called up, council routinely goes back and asks whether any speakers that were absent when they were called previously would like to speak. With 454 speakers signed up to speak in total, the marathon hearings are likely to continue beyond Saturday.