A public hearing on a proposed rental-only development in White Rock has been postponed as a result of COVID-19 concerns.
The White Birch proposal – a six-storey, 80 unit, rental-only building for 1485 Fir St. (at the corner of Fir Street and Russell Avenue) – was to have gone to a distanced public hearing before White Rock council on Nov. 23.
But that hearing, and one for a subdivision of two properties at 15561 and 15569 Oxenham Ave. (to allow for three single-family dwellings), were postponed – on a 5-2 split vote by council– at its Nov. 9 meeting.
The move came in response to current health orders and recommendations, imposed by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Nov. 7, which further restrict businesses and residents in Surrey and White Rock.
Directed specifically for the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal regions, the new orders and recommendations impact sports, workout facilities, social gatherings, workplaces and travel.
Noting that the public hearings fall within the 14-day term of the current orders (they technically expire at midnight, Nov. 23 – although the province has not ruled out an extension, should COVID-19 infection rates continue to climb) Coun. Anthony Manning moved that they be postponed until further notice.
“I’m concerned that our seniors may not want to gather even though we would set up the White Rock Community Centre in a safe manner,” Manning said.
“If we go ahead with them now, we may not get a representative sampling of residents’ concerns or support of either project.”
The Fir Street project has been noted as a barometer of current council’s appetite for increasing rental stock and replacing aging rental buildings to provide more affordable housing options – as opposed to following the previous council’s lead in approving more condo towers in the town centre.
The project would receive a density bonus for increasing rental stock within the city, and would also be the first to follow the city’s new policy of increased compensation for current rental tenants impacted by redevelopment.
Mayor Darryl Walker commented that the postponement motion might result in delays and crowding of the development application process.
“It may start pushing things back to a point that it will take forever to catch up,” he warned.
But Manning said that while his motion was open-ended, he would have no objection to the public hearings being re-scheduled as soon as possible after Nov. 23, should the provincial orders expire without any extension or other imposed restrictions.
Chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferraro told council that he shared Walker’s concerns, and would prefer that staff take the question back to provincial authorities to establish their opinion on public hearings.
“It’s a good point raised by Coun. Manning,” he said. “Obviously we’ll try to find alternative ways to conduct the public hearings.”
But in answer to a question from Walker, Manning said he was not willing to vary his motion to allow time for a staff report.
“I would be, but I still have a further concern that, if this goes to an all-virtual public hearing, many of our seniors may not feel comfortable participating,” he said.
“I think the goal of these public hearings is to get a representative sampling of resident opinion for or against any projects and I don’t want to have any of our residents feel that they can’t participate because of their comfort level, either with the technology or the health order.”
Planning and development services director Carl Isaak said that, as of the meeting, the health ministry’s website still counted public hearings and meetings of councils as permissible activities under the regulations, and noted the city also encourages the public to submit written comments for all public hearings and public meetings.
“(Postponing the hearings) certainly would mean that we would be pushing applications further down the process,” he added.
Voting in favour of the motion were Manning and Couns. David Chesney, Scott Kristjanson, Erika Johanson and Christopher Trevelyan, with opposing votes cast by Coun. Helen Fathers and Mayor Darryl Walker.