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After 35 years on council, McDonald says Delta’s still ‘a pretty great place to live’

As he retires from public life, the longtime city councillor looks back on his decades of service
Longtime Delta city councillor Bruce McDonald is retiring from public office after 35 years of serving his community. (Submitted photo)

By Frank Bucholtz, special to the North Delta Reporter

Bruce McDonald has witnessed a lot as a Delta councillor over the past 35 years.

He had an immersion course on Delta politics in his first term, as the controversial proposals for the former Spetifore property in South Delta came before council not once, but twice. The second go-round in 1989 saw a public hearing that lasted for two months and showed that almost all South Delta residents were firmly opposed to the massive development.

Not only did McDonald sit through the lengthy public hearing (the longest in Canadian history), but he was the only member of the council elected in 1987 who was not endorsed by Delta Electors Committee. As such, he was a lone voice of opposition on many issues.

In the case of the Spetifore proposals, the second was defeated unanimously by council, but many community members felt that DEC councillors were too firmly wedded to massive development. When the next election rolled around a year later, only two of them were re-elected. Incumbent mayor Doug Husband was trounced by former councillor Beth Johnson of IDEA (Independent Delta Electors Association) by a margin of more than 9,000 votes.

The stark divisions within the community and council over the Spetifore lands taught McDonald a very important lesson — the value of compromise.

The initial proposal for thousands of homes was seen by some longtime Delta residents as inevitable, while many other Tsawwassen residents were of a completely opposite view.

“Both sides got caught up in it. It was a messy, messy thing,” McDonald told the Reporter. Council knew that, at some point, something had to happen. It took a lot of time and effort. (The final development proposal, Southlands, was passed by council in 2016). Now there are 400 acres of prime farmland that are no longer private, that we own. It belongs to the people and we lease it out to farmers. There will eventually be 950 housing units of various types, and there is park land.

“The art of politics is compromise. You can’t have everything you want. You have to keep an open mind on things. How do you make something that is workable? We all have predispositions. You come to a rational position and then defend it, and find a spot that is acceptable.”

He also credits the fact that the Century Group, owner of the lands, is a locally-owned company.

“We are fortunate that we have two or three major developers who are invested in the community personally.”

McDonald was first elected in 1987 with the endorsement of Citadel, the Citizens’ Association of Delta. It regularly elected one or more councillors, but never had majority control of council. He initially ran for office in 1983, finishing 11th out of 13 candidates. He persisted, and in 1985 placed seventh behind Citadel’s Norm Lortie, who took the last seat on council. In 1987, incumbent councillor Beth Johnston ran for mayor with Citadel’s endorsement, losing by 55 votes, and McDonald was elected the lone Citadel voice on council.

He topped the polls in the watershed 1990 election and remained on council continuously until 1999, when Johnson stepped aside, In that election, he challenged fellow councillor Lois Jackson for the mayor’s chair. She won 10,452 votes as the Tri-Delta candidate; McDonald, then with IDEA, won 9,393.

He was back on council in 2002, and in 2005 again challenged Jackson for the mayor’s chair, losing by less than 800 votes. He then was elected to council in 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2018.

McDonald became known for looking at how other cities offered services such as transportation and recreation facilities whenever he travelled to see how Delta could do things.

One project that came about that way was the softball fields at North Delta Community Park on 84th Avenue. It was built on an old soccer field through a training program for equipment operators “for a pittance of what it is worth,” McDonald said. A similar program helped develop John Oliver Park on Ladner Trunk Road, home to the Brit Lions Rugby Club.

In May, McDonald announced he was retiring form public office and would not be seeking re-election. Though he did not run with current Mayor George Harvie’s Achieving For Delta slate in 2018, he has endorsed Harvie and his team this election, saying in a press release that he has been “incredibly impressed” with the way Harvie has led the city over the past four years.

“The next council will certainly face difficult challenges,” he said at the time. “I believe there is no one more qualified to lead than George Harvie and his team.”

A long-time North Delta resident, McDonald bought a home there in 1970 and today lives on a quarter-acre lot in Sunshine Hills. He grew up in Burnaby and worked in several B.C. cities as an air traffic controller before being transferred to the Vancouver Airport.

He recalls the minimal services provided in North Delta at the time he and his wife Barb moved there, as well as the sorry state of Scott Road. By the time he was first elected to council there were more services, but far more debt. The municipality had borrowed money to build arenas and recreation centres.

“That debt of $68 million was pretty daunting. We had to build three of everything (due to the three town centres), and had a lot of debt staring us in the face. The province also eliminated $10 million in grants about that time,” McDonald told the Reporter.

Describing himself as a “fiscal conservative,” McDonald is very proud of council’s aggressive approach towards reducing the debt. It was a steep hill to climb.

At one time, the city was contemplating selling off what is now Watershed Park to pay off debt — McDonald is pleased the parcel was instead preserved and designated as a park.

“Under (mayor) Beth Johnson, we instituted a debt reduction strategy and we are now debt-free,” McDonald said.

The opening of the Alex Fraser Bridge in 1986 brought major changes to North Delta. McDonald had chaired a bridge liaison committee and Delta did not want 72nd Avenue connected to the bridge because of the residential nature of the street.

But the province insisted, and widened it to four lanes to boot.

“Suddenly, there were thousands of cars there,” he recalled.

Delta was eventually successful in having the street reduced to two lanes — much to Surrey’s chagrin, McDonald said.

Today, the road is being widened again to four lanes, and there is now an interchange at 72nd and Highway 91 rather than the old stop light. McDonald said land assemblies along 72nd for townhouse developments are much-needed, both to add density and to reduce the challenges people face getting out of their driveways.

The eventual connection of Nordel Way to 88 Avenue in Surrey assisted greatly with traffic flow and reduced the number of commuters going through North Delta neighbourhoods. That was also a significant achievement.

The more recent building of the South Fraser Perimeter Road, completed in 2013, was necessary to assist traffic to and from Roberts Bank and other port facilities. However, McDonald said the insistence by the province that it be built for under $1 billion left the intersection of highways 17 and 91A a constant traffic bottleneck which is only now being resolved — and at a very high price.

Another major achievement during his years on council was the province’s treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation, though McDonald would have liked to see the municipality more involved in the treaty process as the relationship between Delta and the TFN suffered during negotiations.

“[But] now we have a really good relationship,” he said, crediting former chief Kim Baird for the improved relations.

The complex Burns Bog negotiations involving four levels of government, which led to a deal that eventually preserved 5,000 acres of the bog, also gives him satisfaction. The bog is in public hands, but most of it will remain off-limits as part of the Burns Bog Ecological Conservation Area — and another 1,000 acres have been added since that first major purchase.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Delta, Metro Vancouver add more than 300 hectares to Burns Bog Conservation Area

McDonald feels the unique raised peat bog — the largest on the west coast of the Americas — will eventually bounce back. The water table is slowly coming up, and Delta is committed to preserving it.

He also learned another valuable lesson around the time of the Burns Bog negotiations when he met with a property owner in Sunbury who was concerned about a $600 charge for a sewer connection.

“That property owner had very legitimate concerns, and I was reminded that one day you are talking about spending billions on the bog, and two days later you are talking to a resident with concerns. That is the role of a councillor, and each is equally important.”

As his time on council draws to a close, McDonald feels he’s leaving Delta in good shape, with debts paid and a wide variety of services for residents.

The city is changing, with a 29-storey highrise on the way for 93A Avenue and Scott Road and higher densities eyed elsewhere North Delta as land scarcity boosts housing prices. Transit is improving and is well-used along the Scott Road corridor — a far cry from the two-lane road he knew back in 1970.

“[Delta] is bigger and more cosmopolitan. There are lots of challenges, but it remains a pretty great place to live,” McDonald said. “We live in the best part, of the best part, of the best part of the world.”

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