Tense moments as Revelstoke council rejects Jordan River park zoning protection option

In a tied vote, Revelstoke council rejected a plan for a quick park zoning change designation for the Lower Jordan River area to prevent gravel pit development in a specific area nearby the river, instead opting to pursue a 'Section 17' reserve designation under the Land Act. In the meantime, two new gravel pit applications have been filed in the general area.

A view up the Jordan River Valley from November 2020. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Revelstoke City Council has rejected a councillor’s proposal to rezone a forested area nearby the intersection of the Jordan River and Westside Road, instead opting for another plan recommended by staff, who argued that their plan would produce sufficient protection. There were some tense exchanges at the April 13 council meeting as a councillor and senior staff member engaged on the subject of whether staff was debating council on the relative merits of various protection options.

At the last council meeting, Coun. Tim Palmer gained support from all of council minus Mayor Gary Sulz in his drive to expedite a protection plan for the forested area near the river. Staff returned to the April 13 meeting recommending several options, including placing a “Section 17” reserve on the property, which would provide some level of protection of the property.

Essentially, a Section 17 reserve under the Land Act can designate an area for elevated protection, such as for planned future use. It was one of a few options presented by staff. Read their report here.

(Staff also gave a separate slide presentation containing significant new information and policy recommendations, which was not published on the city agenda, so unless you watch the meeting, which very few do, you don’t have access to that key information. In the spirit of providing more context and information to the public, when the practice became commonplace, Revelstoke Mountaineer requested that these slide presentations, which often contain new information used by council to make decisions, be included in the city agenda package. However, city development services staff have generally not done so. This creates a situation where council is required to make decisions on the spot on information they have just received, and also inhibits the public’s ability to access information and participate in community decisions in a meaningful way. The city is bound by many disclosure requirements, including publishing meeting agendas and documents a specific number of days prior to the meeting. The key issue is the slide presentations contain new information not published in the agenda, as opposed to being a summary of information in the published agenda. Whether the Development Services practice violates municipal disclosure requirements is a question for the courts, but certainly a change in this practice would be a voluntary step towards transparency and trust.)

It was also noted that the province had rejected a plan put forward in early 2021 by the Alpine Club of Canada to formalize and manage trails in the area.

After the presentation, Coun. Palmer tabled a motion to immediately zone the area to a parks designation zone. It is currently zoned for rural residential. He said he’d spent time in the area in question recently, noting it was a significant wildlife corridor with wildlife activity everywhere, saying it would be a “travesty” if that was destroyed for a gravel pit.

“Council needs to be doing more to protect this land to flag it to a higher extent … so the province sits up and says we better work at protecting this land,” Palmer said. “This would be making a very, very strong statement to the province saying don’t allow a gravel pit in the area.” Palmer proposed staff bring the zoning change forward to the next meeting.

However, city development services staff argued that a Section 17 reserve would provide sufficient protection. City Director of Development Services Marianne Wade said staff were busy with other things, and that pursuing the zoning change would divert attention from other city issues. She argued that protection of the area in question was the ultimate goal of the process, but it takes time.

“The bylaw is fairly straightforward to get to first and second [reading],” Palmer said.

Discussion gets testy

An aerial photo of the Jordan River Valley and gravel pits in the area. Photo: Revelstoke Mountaineer file photo

“The debate should not be between the politicians and staff,” Palmer said, after he and Wade engaged in a back-and-forth over whether changing the area to a park zoning designation would enhance protection offered under the current zoning. Palmer argued it would, while Wade argued it wouldn’t change much.

“This council needs to decide whether we are the policy makers or staff is the policy makers. This is not a hard task, and it doesn’t reject all the tasks that the director talked about,” Palmer said, saying the Jordan River issue has been ongoing for a year and a half without tangible protection. “I really urge council, c’mon, get into the driver’s seat and let’s do something tangible,” he said. “This has far more protection that the [rural residential zoning.] Far more.”

Wade countered: “I’m not here to debate. I am here to give you my best advice. This is not a debate and I take exception to that.”

The decision

File photo: The starting point of the Jordan River race is the popular spot to watch the event. It’s accessible by a short, easy hike. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

The mayor included, there are currently six voting members of council. Councillors Tim Palmer, Mike Brooks-Hill and Jackie Rhind were in favour of moving forward with the parks zoning, while Mayor Gary Sulz and Councillors Nicole Cherlet and Rob Elliott opposed the park zoning protection option. Because it was a tie, the motion was defeated.

Council later opted to pursue a Section 17 protection designation for the property, a process expected to play out in the coming months.

Analysis: Power struggles, perfect plans and two brand new gravel pit applications

There are a few stories going on here.

The first is the change in dynamic at the council table brought on by the newly elected councillor, an experienced former Chief Administrative Officer with the city. As we noted in a previous article on the Jordan River gravel pit issue, when the urge to get ‘er done and deliver for the people arises, councillors lacking experience in the complex and technical legal framework that underpins municipal government can easily be flummoxed with protracted technical arguments from staff, who can steer them towards staff’s preferred options. On the other hand, staff argue that their way of doing things is the right path to comprehensive results, and that it just takes time, more planning, and that they’re delivering the best advice they have.

In theory, council sets policy direction and staff executes that policy direction. In reality, it’s a more fluid and nuanced dynamic, one that is currently being openly debated at the council table. What is an optimal balance is a whole other discussion, but in the meantime it’s apparent the current dynamic in Revelstoke is in flux. The relative merits of various approaches is up for you to ponder.

The second story is what will happen with gravel pit development in the Jordan River area. Although staff argued that the Section 17 protection would be sufficient protection for the area in question, in recent days, Terus Construction has filed two new gravel pit applications in the general vicinity, one of which is for an 8.68-acre pit proposed to be located on land already protected by a Section 17 reserve, which was put in place for future tech park expansion nearby the Revelstoke landfill. The other is a 7.48-acre gravel pit further up the Jordan River Valley, nearby an existing pit. You can see the applications here and here, and public commenting is open. Will the existing, current Section 17 protection be enough to prevent the new application for the new pit nearby the landfill? Time will tell.

Finally, it’s important to note that municipal government is only one player in the dynamic, and that the provincial government has significant sway in the matter. Decision-makers in the provincial government agencies responsible have their own marching orders, including an general mission to facilitate the availability of aggregate for highways and construction projects. Additionally, companies with registered commercial interests on a property also have rights under the law and those who taketh them away could be required under law to compensate them. There were allusions to continued discussion of the item in camera portion of the meeting, perhaps an indicator that thornier legal and money issues with implications for taxpayers are involved.

Skirmishes over gravel pits in the Westside Road area have been been ongoing for a about a decade in Revelstoke and continue, with promised planning that will foster detente always on the horizon. At this fork in the path, the debate is over which trail to take.

Watch

We’ve cued the video below to the start of the April 13 discussion on the Jordan River gravel pit issue here:

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.