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New Municipal Bylaw Emphasizes Community Engagement

Three years ago (on April 1, 2015), Chemainus Residents Association president Bernie Jones appeared before North Cowichan Council to introduce the concept of an "early notification system", whereby the municipality would notify neighbourhood organizations about development projects in their community that were under review. The neighbourhood associations could then ensure that local residents were aware of the development, and they would have time to provide feedback that might be useful to staff, committees, and Council. Council passed a motion recommending that staff look into this proposal.

Fast forward to 2018, and the new Cowichan Communities Coalition (CCC) - of which Jones is a director - revitalized the idea of the early notification system. Earlier this year, CCC president Marilyn Palmer, together with Jones, met with staff to discuss what an early notification system might look like. They were informed that a new Development Procedures Bylaw was in the works that would hopefully address this issue.

Last month, Chris Hutton - Community Planning Coordinator for North Cowichan - reached out to the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association (and several other community associations), inviting us to a presentation on the new Development Procedures Bylaw, which he and his team were in the process of drafting. Following the presentation, we were invited to review and comment on the draft bylaw. This past week, the SNA submitted its feedback to Mr. Hutton, and we are looking forward to seeing the outcome of this community outreach on behalf of the municipality.

The fact that the SNA and other community organizations were given this opportunity represents a much-appreciated change in attitude towards citizen input on development. We believe this can be attributed in large part to a "changing of the guard", with CAO Ted Swabey being brought on board last year and other shakeups in the planning department. We are pleased to announce that the draft bylaw, as well as the staff report that accompanied it at the September 5, 2018 regular council meeting, places a notable emphasis on early community engagement in the context of development applications. Some positive aspects of the proposal are as follows:

First, the the municipality plans to launch a new webpage, "Building North Cowichan", which will post information about new development applications. Second, the draft Bylaw allows for the Director of Planning to establish "points of contact" with various community groups, such as neighbourhood associations and stewardship organizations, to personally inform them of new development applications and notices of public information meetings, to issue referral invitations, etc. Third, two of the three procedural options put forward in the staff report allow for early community involvement and, importantly, early involvement of Council. Staff has recommended one of these two options, which both provide separation between first and second reading in order to allow Council to request additional information, invite new referrals, and review the results of any public information meetings.

While the new bylaw is still in the process of development, we applaud the efforts of Mr. Hutton and his staff in drafting what appears to be a new era of cooperation between planners, communities, and local residents. There is much to be optimistic about in the draft Development Procedures Bylaw, and we look forward to continued engagement with North Cowichan staff and Council as the bylaw moves towards completion and adoption.

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