Some Surrey city councillors fear a corporate recommendation to “streamline” the city’s Environmental Development Permits process by surrendering responsibilities back to higher levels of government will hamper Surrey’s checks and balances where land development is concerned.
A progress update report concerning Surrey’s economic action and recovery plan that came before council July 27 contains recommendations concerning how the environmental review permitting and approvals administered under federal and provincial legislation should be streamlined. Council’s next meeting is Sept. 15.
The corporate report noted that on July 25, 2016 the council of the day approved a Streamside Protection of Surrey Zoning bylaw along with requirements for Environmental Development Permits for sensitive ecosystems and steep slopes, which the report notes are “important initiatives that help preserve Surrey’s natural areas.” But when these initiatives were introduced their administration, and overlap with federal and provincial responsibilities, “were not completely defined” and over the past two years this created a “bottleneck in the staff review process and has delayed applications substantially, often with little or no change from the initially proposed plans.”
The report notes that changes stemming from a “best practice review” will see qualified environmental professionals working directly with federal and provincial agencies “in getting all required environmental approvals, including the use of peer reviews where appropriate for both on-site and off-site works required for proposed developments,” with staff concentrating on preparing “terms of reference, guidelines, checklists, and standards” which QEPs can use to prepare reports for the province and/or the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. These “improvements,” the corporate report notes, are planned for third quarter of 2020.
Councillor Steven Pettigrew wanted to amend the report but Mayor Doug McCallum told him he could not. “You can either like it or not like it, and have it redone, but we’re not going to make amendments to corporate reports,” McCallum said.
City Manager Vincent Lalonde confirmed that. “A corporate report is our technical document to you, so it’s really not, you’re correct, not up to council to modify it,” he told mayor and council, but recommendations contained in the report can either be supported or not.
Councillor Jack Hundial noted a biologist position was brought in three years ago and asked why staff was asking the city to revert back now.
Jean Lamontagne, Surrey’s general manager of planning, explained that “basically at the provincial level they were totally understaffed.
“We had to try to help with the processing of files that had some environmental aspect to it. Since then the province has stepped up their office within the Surrey branch that deals with all the environmental aspect of application in the Fraser Valley and it makes sense for those decisions, where they belong, they belong with the provincial government to be handled at that end, not at our end.”
Councillor Brenda Locke said it’s “disappointing” council can’t remove the environment-related recommendations from the report “and maybe have staff look at it separately. I guess it just seems to me that it’s part of due diligence for the city.
“I still think that it’s important that the city have input on it as well,” she said.
Councillor Linda Annis said it would be “very unfortunate to lose that piece of the whole process through city hall. Perhaps what we need to do is look at how we can further make it more efficient but I don’t think we can afford to lose that as part of the planning process.”
McCallum said the only government agency that can issue the environment permit is the B.C. government.
“The city cannot issue the environment permit,” he said. “We were taking on the provincial job with no results really.”
He said he thinks the recommendations advanced by staff in their report are more efficient, and adopting them will be a “big help” for the environment and for the development industry. “So I’m going to fully support the corporate report,” McCallum said.
Councillor Doug Elford also said he “fully” supported the report. “When I saw the environmental review, the extraction of the process, I was mildly concerned,” he said. “However, the real issue here – I’m just going to make a general statement – is the act itself needs to be reviewed, revised and updated. It leaves too much discretion, there’s too much grey area there which creates a lot of bottlenecks in the process. Really, the ministry needs to have a look at this and review this process because a lot of municipalities are having the save issues, the same problems. It needs to be streamlined, it needs to be modernized. And that is the real basic problem.”
Pettigrew said he’s “very concerned” about the recommendations.
“I believe this is going to severely impair and affect the checks and balances that are done by the city,” he said. “Rather than trying to scale it down I think we need to actually look at the environmental process we have. Our engineering department has a very solid environmental review process. We have our sustainability department which kind-of bounces around from department from year to year. I think this needs to be moved up to a higher level.
“I’m just going to flat out reject this corporate report because I’m unable to pull this one piece out, therefore I’m forced to reject this entire corporate report which I’m not particularly happy about doing, but that’s what I’m going to have to do,” Pettigrew said.
But despite the opposition voiced, council endorsed the city staff’s proposed “streamlining” of the environmental permitting process.