Frustration around provincial riparian environmental regulations backlogging development work in Sicamous has been cleared up for council.
At the July 26 committee of the whole meeting, Angela Cameron, senior aquatic habitat biologist with the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Management, explained the Riparian Areas Protection Regulation (RAPR) more clearly for council and noted a previous eight-month backlog of applications has recently been cleared.
Council had expressed concern and frustration at past meetings about the turnaround times for the necessary qualified environmental professional (QEP) reports to be done, submitted to the provincial government, approved and sent back, which all has to happen before council can approve a development permit in the district.
Coun. Gord Bushell noted council had been told there was an eight-month wait.
The average time it takes for provincial biologists to return a submitted review from a local government is 30 days, said Cameron, and they are only taking 10 days to return reports lately.
The eight-month wait was dealt with as Cameron was tasked with updating the process and hiring six extra biologists to help with the reviews. She also stressed communication would be much easier now with the expanded team.
Asked if local governments could cut the middleman and do their own environmental assessments, Cameron said it’s possible, but they would have to hire their own QEP who must be registered with an appropriate professional association and have taken and passed the RAPR course.
Councillors said they had heard the City of Langford doesn’t have to defer to the province for development in proximity to riparian areas, and asked how they are able to be their own authority.
Cameron corrected the rumour, stating Langford doesn’t currently have a zoning policy that allows them to skip submitting a report to the RAPR team. Governments can go through a process with RAPR to assure the province they are exceeding minimum standards and this is to reduce local governments’ liability in regards to civil court litigation, but Langford doesn’t currently have this authority.
She said there are cities like Abbotsford, Surrey and Richmond that don’t require submission to the RAPR system, but that is because they have a ‘meet or exceed’ portion in their bylaw zoning that requires every development to include a blanket setback that will exceeds the one provided by RAPR.
Cameron clarified the RAPR team reviews cases that don’t have a zoning bylaw policy to exceed RAPR setbacks and encouraged local governments to implement such a policy to remove the requirement of submission to the RAPR system.
Local governments with provincially-reviewed zoning bylaws that exceed RAPR setbacks can be dealt with by planning staff internally because all development permit environmental setbacks would already exceed the minimum provincial riparian protection standard. In these instances, RAPR reports would still need to be reviewed by the province when a development variance permit is being sought, Cameron explained.
Cameron explained in detail the purpose of the RAPR, noting the setback of 30 metres is the baseline metric, used to trigger the need for an environmental assessment on properties near streams, lakes, wetlands and even ditches.
The definition is broad, she said, and encompasses a lot more than what would be triggered by any other building permit. The 30-metre buffer triggers the need to hire a QEP, but the agreed-upon setback can be anywhere from two to 30 metres for the final development. Any existing structures or designated land uses on properties in place since before the 2006 regulation can continue, as long as they don’t change, confirmed Cameron.
As soon as anything new is built or structures are changed, however, the RAPR is triggered, and with the demolition or removal of a structure or allowance of a previously cleared area to become naturalized, the grandparented status is lost.
RAPR not only protects fish and habitats but helps local governments protect against severe flooding and drought events, said Cameron.
The question arose about the Sicamous lagoon, which is a man-made dredged body of water, and if the RAPR regulations apply the same as to a natural lake.
Cameron said the definition includes not just where fish live but anything that could connect to a fish habitat, including areas where debris could fall into water.
Even areas confirmed to have no fish living in it, like a small ditch that contains water, are included, which encompasses a lot of land developers are eyeing, she said. Effectiveness monitoring for RAPR was done this year, said Cameron, looking at files from 2006-2022 to see if the regulations are protecting what they are supposed to. The study will finish reviewing files this month and updates should be out within the coming year.
Council wrapped up the conversation noting the level of concern around the regulations from residents, as many properties in Sicamous would not have been allowed to be built today under RAPR and people don’t want to see extreme limits imposed.
Cameron explained the ‘undue hardship’ clause states a lot can’t be totally sterilized to future development, and under that classification, setbacks can be varied, meaning the actual required distance isn’t reduced but what can be developed within the lot can vary, developed to a maximum of up to 30 or 40 per cent of building requirements within the existing zoning.