Monday, October 28, 2013

Court Decision puts Fort Langley Coulter Berry Project on Hold

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve been a strong supporter of the Coulter Berry Building project in Fort Langley. With all the auto-oriented development that occurs within the Township of Langley, this project stood out as one of the few projects that truly put walkability and sustainable first.

Unfortunately, like most things in Fort Langley that involve change, this project was not without its opposition. While the majority of the community actually supports building a walkable village centre and the Coulter Berry Building project, a small vocal group of people opposed the project. While I believe this group would have had a problem with any development proposed for the corner of Glover Road and Mavis Road, they found that the old Fort Langley Heritage Design Guidelines recommend that buildings “not exceed two storeys or 9 metres”. The group latched onto this recommendation; the Coulter Berry Building is three storeys high. The irony of the matter is that there are many buildings in Fort Langley that exceed that recommendation including the Fort Langley Community Hall which is one of the few actual heritage buildings in the community.

The noise generated by this small group was so intense that the Fort Langley Community Association hosted a town hall about the project around this time last year. I agreed to be on a panel at the meeting which included the head Township planner at the time and the architect of the design guidelines. We all were in favour of the project. This small group accused us of being in the pocket of the developer thought the only compensation we received was from the FLCA and it was a free dinner at a local Fort Langley bistro that night.

Township council, recognizing that the design guideline were guidelines, issued a Heritage Alteration Permit which allowed the project to break ground in late August. I was really excited to see this project start as I believe this project will set a positive example for other projects in town centres to aspire to in the Township.

In August, the small vocal group launched a lawsuit against Township of Langley alleging that the Coulter Berry project would “unalterably and irreparably undermine the heritage policies for land located in the Heritage Conservation Area, to the detriment of the cultural and historical heritage of Fort Langley, contrary to law.” I was actually assuming that the court would dismiss this case, but on Friday Supreme Court Justice Groves basically shutdown the Coulter Berry project.

According to the developer, on his blog he says that the decision rests on "a technical concern about the Township's process for granting variances, even though the same process has been used for decades, including for the nearby Reid Block building now under construction." Unfortunately, the Justice’s written explanation will not be available for 4 months.

This is very disappointing news. The Township will likely appeal this decision, but in the meantime Fort Langley’s heart will have a big hole in the middle. The thing that really upsets me is that the developer could have built a strip mall or a parking lot which likely wouldn't have ended up with a court case.

Without the Justice’s written explanation, it’s impossible to know his reasoning for putting the permit on hold. This decision could have a chilling effect on other projects in “heritage areas” around the province. In fact this decision, if not overturned during appeal, might actually hurt heritage as design guidelines may become vaguer to prevent future lawsuits.

I hope that the developer of the Coulter Berry Building does not give up on this project, even though the Supreme Court’s decision is a massive setback. If this project doesn’t proceed, I believe that the walkability and sustainability of Fort Langley will be compromised. The village will not be able to live up to its full potential as a walkable, complete community.


John Evanochko said...

With all due respect, I feel that you miss the point of the court challenge by the petitioners against Coulter Berry and that is the need to have council follow its own rules and that of the Local Government Act. Yes, this is a delay in getting on with ensuring sustainable development of the kind proposed by Coulter Berry. However, there is a very strong undercurrent of distrust of how decisions are made in the Township and the hypocrisy of having Advisory Committees whose advise is mostly for nought. After other controversial (and unpopular) decisions made by council earlier in the year, this project may very well have been the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back". The LGA does not allow council to change the density under its Heritage Alteration Permit and contrary to the advise of it's professional planning staff, it's appointed Heritage Advisory Committee and countless well meaning community members, went ahead with their approval. It's unfortunate that the project, which, from what I know of it, from a sustainability aspect, is a good one, is delayed at cost to the developer and since this had to go to court, at considerable cost to the taxpayer. However, this was not so much about rejecting the project, but a demand that due process, including adhering to the guiding legislation, be followed. Though costly to many and creating unnecessary animosity between community members, there is an important lesson to be learned and that is that elected officials do not have the right to arbitrarily decide on projects that affect the community. Allowing this to occur soon leads to a "prerogative governance" model. This was exemplified, when, during court proceedings, the Township Legal Council put forth the argument that council should be given leeway to be "creative", which is a very slippery slope, to allowing council to do almost as they please.

It was a hard lesson for council, and project supporters, but that is the nature of democracy. As a taxpayer /citizen, everyone, including a "small vocal group" have the right to due process and to challenge undue or improper process by government in the courts. Council can amend the local zoning bylaws, in order to restart the project, if they feel strongly about the value of project, through due process which will include public hearings. True leaders will convince the community that the project is good for Fort Langley, although there is no guarantee that this will be easy, and will require regaining public trust, which has been severely damaged in this process. Democracy is a messy process, but deserves the fight that comes of ensuring you and I continue to enjoy it. Let's not be so blinded by our vision that we forget what allows us to put forth those visions, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to demand due process, in a word, ......democracy.

The full written court decision on Coulter Berry is available on-line at

Catherine Doyle said...

In a word? Horsefeathers! Spare us the rhetoric on democracy, this is about the absurdity of using a chainsaw to cut butter! Do you really think that reasoned individuals view a group of dilettantes efforts to stop construction, TEMPORARILY, at the very possible expense to taxpayers of millions of dollars, as a stand for democracy? Oh, and not to stop the project but just to make council use the correct mechanism for enabling approval to achieve the same outcome, a three story building?

Did they know that it was not the permanent solution they wanted before hand? They should have. One of their directors had it brought to his attention when he tried to advance the idea at the Executive of the Fort Langley Community Association in November 2012. I know this for a fact as it was me that brought it to his attention.

That was indeed the outcome of the Prince George attempt to use the same legal argument. It was also a temporary obstacle for the developer for the same reason it is here, the judge clearly did not object to the project there either, just the enabling mechanism used to approve it. I think the opponents legal counsel were the same in both cases.

I think a citizens group concerned about process and having found out prior to the lawsuit that precedent had been set in precisely this area which clearly and, unequivocally, pointed to it's proper and legal resolution without having to go through the same exercise to achieve the same results would have done the responsible thing and lobby council to use the proper process going forward. For Free! with no tax burden?

So the question is begged, why go forward if the outcome is not what you claim to be seeking? Well the two big things to come from such an action is a possible huge taxpayer burden that would certainly present political challenges for whoever is deemed responsible by the spin machine. The opponents point their finger at council when they had a clear choice to do the right thing and not advance a legal case with no moral or ethical merit. The second thing has been an incredible amount of publicity that can be huge political currency if the right spin is achieved. So the next Question becomes are any of the opponents/petitioners positioned to benefit from these events? Well it just so happens that two of the five original founding Directors of the SOFLRFSD are also founding Directors of Live Langley, the new municipal party that isn"t a slate(I am thinking you may know this John) and, all of the remaining directors are either donors and or registered supporters of Live Langley. Democracy indeed!