Ian Tyzzer is a keen birdwatcher.
But the retired South Surrey resident – he was formerly a police officer in Hong Kong – wasn’t expecting to encounter a group of four band-tailed pigeons at a neighbour’s bird-feeder in early September.
It was a pleasant confirmation to him that the heavily-treed area around his house at Elgin Wynd Strata (near 32B Avenue and 144 St.) provides a home to some endangered and declining species of bird life.
But it also came with a pang of loss, he said.
The surprise sighting occurred too late for him or his fellow strata members to lodge an effective argument against a now-approved development application at nearby 14338 32 Ave. – one that is going to result in the loss of some 23 mature trees, including Douglas firs, western red cedars and Zebrina cedars.
“We weren’t aware of the pigeons until after the first readings and just before the public hearing,” he told Peace Arch News.
And that points out what he and neighbours believe is a major flaw in Surrey’s development approval process – that public hearings for applications commonly take place the same night as the votes to approve them.
“Council members’ minds are pretty well made up by the time the hearing takes place – the public hearing is basically a waste of time,” he said.
He and his neighbours did prepare and present a detailed and heartfelt brief for the public hearing Sept. 9, outlining their concerns about the environmental impacts of the proposed housing project, but Tyzzer said he doesn’t believe it could have had any effect on council’s decision, in which the project received final reading and approval later that evening.
That provides no appreciable space for counter-arguments, he said.
And that is of particular concern, he said, with an ongoing creep of urbanization in the area, and a perception that each approved development is being cited as a precedent for the next.
Elgin Park Wynd is a small private enclave of 12 single family homes just off 144 Street. As residents pointed out in their presentation at the public hearing, the area is less than 100 metres away from a green belt area of riparian vegetation that follows Elgin Creek from the Nicomekl River all the way to 24 Avenue and Sunnyside Woods.
“We have a lot of wildlife right up to our backyards,” Tyzzer said.
The presentation to council noted that residents have recorded “more than 17 species of mammals, including coastal black-tailed deer, at least three species of bat and several unidentified species of voles and shrews.”
But the most unexpected species of wildlife to date, Tyzzer said, has been the band-tailed pigeon, recognizable by the white ‘collar’ marking at the back of its neck.
The BC Breeding Bird Atlas describes it as “North America’s largest native pigeon” – but also notes that it has long been a focus of “managed sport and market hunting.” That has led to a “widespread, long-term decline” in numbers, in spite of harvest limits and hunting closures, the atlas notes – and, as a consequence, the bird has been given ‘special concern’ status under the Species At Risk Act.
“It’s a sad fact of life that, on a global basis, every bird species is declining,” Tyzzer said.
Although the pigeon’s range traditionally extends from South America to the Alaska Panhandle, southern B.C. is now “the top end of its range,” Tyzzer said, and while the bird has adapted to suburban and agricultural environments, it relies on areas with sufficient tree cover – such as the tall conifers beside Elgin Park Wynd –where berry-producing shrubs supplement its food sources.
As the presentation to council noted, the species is breeding in the area – and the best evidence of this is the regular appearance at a bird feeder in strata chair Alan Rae’s backyard of four birds; two adults and two juveniles.
“It’s been difficult to get a picture of them, because they are so shy,” Tyzzer told PAN.
The bird nests in the crown of tall conifers, and also perches there for long periods, he said – and it has been particularly observed in the trees on the east side of the intersection of 144 Street and 32B Avenue, and directly across from the newly approved project.
“Nothing illustrates the importance of the loss of so many large conifers in the vicinity more than this,” the presentation stated.
And while Tyzzer said he and his neighbours are resigned to the fact that the latest approval is a fait accompli, they are concerned by what they perceive as a trend in development of the area that can only further threaten endangered wildlife.
They argue that the current ‘suburban density exception area’ for the neighbourhood, which set a maximum of five units per hectare, is being pushed to seven units per hectare – with a ‘postage stamp’ layout, maximizing density with only a narrow border around the edge.
Of particular concern, Tyzzer said, is that the most recent application used two previous subdivision applications in the area – one in November of 2016 and one in August 2018 – as a precedent for the change.
“These developments were each presented as stand-alone applications and yet both are relied on in this current application as justification for the zoning standards proposed,” the presentation pointed out.
“The strata argues that this is contrary to good planning policy, whereby the city should take an active lead in the planning process rather than allow piecemeal development driven by profit at the expense of the neighborhood and environment.”
Of 73 trees lost in one of the prior developments, the strata noted, only 45 were replaced, with the city accepting $24,900 in compensation for loss of habitat. In the other development, four mature protected Douglas firs were lost, but the tree assessment did not include them, so no replacement trees were proposed and the city received only $4,800 for habitat loss.
And Tyzzer, who like his neighbours, argues for a buffer zone around the existing wildlife and riparian green belt area to protect threatened species like the band-tailed pigeon, said such penalties offer little discouragement for developers intent on building at the cost of tree cover.
“In the big picture, it’s just the cost of doing business,” he said.
Contacted by PAN, a representative of Surrey’s Planning and Development Department emailed, “The City previously provided the Strata a comprehensive information package about the application, detailed the public notification processes, and outlined the City’s due proper due diligence process, with standard business practices and the Local Government Act.
“The application received 3rd Reading at the September Council meeting, and the Strata had opportunity to have their concerns raised at that time, to be considered by Council.”