What follows is a draft of my summary of the new OCP and the review process. It will be sent out by mail as a letter to all Area F residents in the coming days. Comments are welcome below.
Summary of proposed OCP changes by neighborhood
Traditional West Bench (VLA project)
Sage Mesa and Westwood Properties
Undeveloped large parcels on West Bench fringe
Faulder and North Beach
Area F Director’s Commentary
As you are hopefully aware, the RDOS is wrapping up an 18-month review of the Area F Official Community Plan (OCP). The OCP review is important: it will have a tangible impact on your future quality of life, property value, and tax burden. Moreover, some neighborhoods in Area F have undergone gradual but significant changes since their establishment. The OCP review provides an opportunity to reexamine the core principles and assumptions on which these neighborhoods are built.
From priorities to policy
The primary source of information for the OCP review process was a series of surveys intended to provide a snapshot of the objectives and priorities of residents. The surveys asked participants in the Greater West Bench (West Bench, Sage Mesa, Husula Highlands, and Westwood Properties) to make tradeoffs between three outcomes identified early on as desirable: rural ambiance, infrastructure/amenities, and low taxes. The survey results have been summarized and discussed elsewhere. The most important finding is that residents are highly polarized about the future of their neighborhoods. Some want change; others want things to stay the same. The draft OCP is the result of our efforts to strike a balance between conflicting visions.
At this point, we are seeking feedback on the draft OCP prior to sending it to the RDOS Board for adoption. Obviously, given the polarization apparent during the 18-month consultation and information-gathering process, we know that not everyone is going to be happy with all aspects of the plan. Now is not the time to re-fight past battles. Instead, we are looking for some indication that the compromises and tradeoffs in the plan are reasonable, that they follow in logical way from the diverse priorities and preferences that emerged in the surveys. In addition, we know that not everyone wants to read and review a formal planning document. What follows is my own informal summary of the most significant changes resulting from the OCP review process (primarily Section 11 of the OCP). I have tried to highlight the various compromises and provide some rationale for the inevitable give-and-take. I provide some commentary on implementation at the end of the document.
Summary of Changes for the Greater West Bench
The traditional West Bench: reaffirm rural residential
The draft OCP seeks to maintain the “traditional” West Bench as it is now. Specifically, the OCP does not support subdivision of existing properties within the boundaries of the original VLA development.
We saw significant support in the surveys for non-subdivision densification in the form of secondary suites and carriage houses. In our view, this would not significantly degrade the rural ambiance on the West Bench. However, secondary suites are currently not allowed anywhere in the Greater West Bench due to concerns about soil stability. We will re-examine this prohibition as part of an updated geotechnical study, but I would be surprised if anything changes without the installation of storm and sanitary sewer.
So what about sewer? The OCP’s stance on subdivision within the traditional West Bench remains the same, even if sewer is installed. This might strike some as inconsistent with the survey results, in which many people expressed a desire to subdivide their large lots. However, as we have seen in prior waves of willy-nilly subdivision on the West Bench, carving up large lots leads to a decline in rural ambiance, which is what so many residents value above all else.
Finally, the OCP does not support an expansion of industrial uses (“home industry”) on the traditional West Bench. As many of you know, the RDOS suspended bylaw enforcement around industrial uses during the OCP process just in case there was strong support for liberalization of land use rules. However, we have received a strong message from residents in favor of rural and agricultural uses only. We will therefore resume bylaw enforcement.
Potential development on the West Bench fringe
Many residents—indeed, a slim majority—expressed support for densification on the condition that new development provides funds and critical mass for infrastructure improvements. This should come as no surprise: many residents face sustained boil water advisories, inadequate fire flows, serious drainage problems, failing septic systems, and the perennial risk of school closure. The bottom line is that the Greater West Bench, like almost all rural areas, is not self-sufficient when it comes to critical infrastructure. We rely on an unreliable trickle of grants (actually: other taxpayers’ money) to make our chosen way of life affordable. This is unsustainable. So how do we evolve into a sustainable community if the West Bench is going to stay pretty much as it is?
The draft OCP encourages pocket densification in the handful of undeveloped areas outside of the traditional West Bench—basically: Peter Brothers asphalt plant, the golf courses, and the area north of Sage Mesa (see Figure 1 below). This is not a new policy direction for the Greater West Bench: every neighborhood added since the original Veteran’s Land Act project has been carved into progressively smaller lots. Indeed, a property down the street from my home is earmarked for a firehall as part of the multi-phase Westwood Properties development. The firehall property remains vacant because development in the rural areas of the RDOS came to a dead stop in the last decade as the result of economic conditions and the adoption of 1-hectare rule. The new reality is that rural development requires sewer. But sewer requires sufficient scale to make the numbers work. Add in the inadequacy of our existing water systems and unstable soil and the minimum economic scale for development goes even higher. But as we have seen in Sendaro Canyon and Skaha Hills, the barriers to fully-serviced rural development are not necessarily insurmountable. Much depends on the kind of development and the market demand for what is being offered.
Inviting pocket densification on the West Bench fringe is clearly a series of tradeoffs. Developers will be responsible for funding and building the water and sewer infrastructure that enables their projects. In return, other neighborhoods will have the option to connect into that infrastructure. The asphalt plant and the associated truck traffic may be relocated, but we accept multi-story condominiums and automobile traffic in their place. We must give up something to grow our way out of our infrastructure deficit.
Figure 1: Areas of the West Bench fringe that may be suitable for development.
Summary of Changes in Rural Summerland
Status Quo in Faulder and North Beach
There is little support in Faulder for change. The small community has undergone a difficult upgrade of its water system and now the focus appears to be on incremental community improvements, such as better fire prevention and aquifer protection. Accordingly, the OCP envisions little change to land use in Faluder.
Challenges in Meadow Valley
Meadow Valley is a more difficult case because, like the West Bench, the core assumption underlying the community (intensive agriculture) is being challenged. This is seen in the survey results, in which residents showed a strong preference for agriculture over other land uses but then were more polarized when it came to subdivision. Many support subdivision while other oppose it.
As we have seen over the decades throughout the RDOS, subdivision threatens agriculture. This occurs most obviously when one economically viable parcel is fragmented into two parcels that are too small to make agriculture worthwhile. But it occurs even when non-farmable sections of lands are split off. The addition of non-farmers to farming communities waters down and, in some cases, drowns out the democratic voice of farmers. On top of that, we have the ongoing, taxpayer-borne costs of allowing people to live in remote areas for no other reason than they want to: fire evacuation, flood evacuation, disaster assistance, and so on.
It is important to note that an OCP bylaw is an aspirational document—it does not really do anything directly. It is different from a zoning bylaw, which sets out specific rights and restrictions (e.g., density. setbacks), or a service establishment bylaw, which authorizes taxation and/or fees for a new service (e.g., sewer). Such implementation bylaws are required to be consistent with the OCP, but the OCP does not, by itself, grant rights or create services. The OCP is merely—as its name implies—a high-level plan. Indeed, any implementation bylaw that involves a change in taxation, such as service establishment or borrowing, triggers its own full-scale democratic assent process. So the bottom line is this: Just because something is in the OCP does not mean it is going to happen. The community must explicitly consent to specific projects if and when they come forward.
A notable exception to this is zoning. Zoning changes never trigger a formal public assent process because the power to rezone is assigned to the RDOS board. In addition, rezoning proposals that are consistent with the OCP do not, under the Local Government Act, require a public hearing. This is because the OCP is taken to be the public consultation for land use matters. If a land use is supported in the OCP, it is, by definition, the will of the people. This is not merely a shortcut: it is a critical enabler of investment. The permitted land use attached to each parcel provides developers some assurance that their projects will not be tied up in endless public debate, controversy, and NIMBY-ism. In short, the OCP is a gentleman’s agreement with developers: we ask them to invest time, effort, and money in fleshing-out a development proposal and in return promise to give their proposal fair consideration with respect to the broad aspirations outlined in the OCP.
Of course, there is the other side of it. What about proposals that are not envisioned in, or supported by, the OCP? Everyone has the right to make an application to the RDOS—regardless of the current rules or plan—and have their proposal judged on its own merits. But proposals that conflict with the OCP require an OCP amendment, which is a more onerous process with more opportunities for public input and opposition. Onerous, but not impossible. The RDOS, like all local governments, makes OCP amendments routinely. I personally would prefer a more disciplined adherence to our plans, but much depends on the perceived legitimacy of the OCP. Also, it is very hard to stand up in front of a family and say no to their dream project because their dream project incrementally undermines a long-term theoretical plan. It is easier to say yes, which is apparent to anyone who drives through rural British Columbia.
So bottom line on implementation: The OCP may lead to some significant changes in a handful of areas (notably, the West Bench fringe). On the other hand, change is driven by the decisions of others, not the RDOS. The RDOS merely responds to proposals.
The point above about decision making is important. Regional districts in British Columbia have very limited powers compared to municipalities. Two examples:
- Regional districts do not control roads or drainage within their boundaries. Roads and associated infrastructure belong either to municipalities (if within city limits) or the province (if outside city limits). This severely limits the ability of a regional government to control the destiny of its rural areas. This is especially true for the West Bench and Sage Mesa, where soil stability and drainage are critical concerns. We are obliged to beg and cajole the province (in competition with other areas) to solve some of our most pressing problems. Anyone who has complained to the RDOS about potholes, ploughing, or washouts is familiar with the buck-passing inherent in this system of divided responsibilities.
- Legislation effectively prevents regional districts from undertaking “build it and they will come” projects. Every service is paid for by the specific residents who benefit. There is no room in this funding formula for forward-looking speculation.
The implication is that, if the Greater West Bench is to modernize, densify, and add infrastructure, being an electoral area within the regional district may not be the best form of governance. Other parts of the RDOS, notably Okanagan Falls, face a similar governance dilemma.
Another issue is the willingness of the City of Penticton to partner. We work very closely with Penticton to provide critical infrastructure and services, such as water filtration for the West Bench water system and fire protection for the Greater West Bench. In addition, the City of Penticton has concluded through its own research that Area F residents make significant use of money-losing public facilities that we do not help subsidize (e.g., the South Okanagan Events Centre) or inadequately help subsidize (e.g., the Penticton Community Centre). Many Penticton residents—rightly or wrongly—see this as a form of “cherry picking”. This perception will almost certainly emerge as an issue when we approach Penticton in the future for water system expansion or sewer treatment services. They can simply refuse.
So all this raises the possibility of boundary expansion: the inclusion of the Greater West Bench within the municipal boundaries of the City of Penticton. Not a single West Bench resident has ever indicated to me that boundary expansion is something they want. However, the simple fact is this: If we want to achieve the vision identified in the OCP review process—which entails modern, financially-sustainable infrastructure—boundary expansion may be the only practical means of achieving it. So again, a tradeoff.
Some people claim that joining the City of Penticton will result in a huge tax increase. I have looked at this and I am not so sure. Remember that we all pay a “rural tax” to the province in addition to our RDOS property tax. The rural tax contributes to the cost of maintaining rural roads, drainage, and so on. Between the elimination of the rural tax and economies of scale in water and fire protection, I think the difference between City of Penticton taxes and our net taxes is smaller than some people think. Either way, it is all theoretical at this point. Like all implementation activities, a separate public assent process with much better information would be required before anything happens. The point here is merely to get people thinking ahead a bit about longer-term implications.
So what happens if all this magically comes together? Imagine the best-case scenario: We attract several capable, well-financed developers to build very attractive luxury townhomes tucked away in discrete corners of the West Bench. And these developers, because their financial upside is so large, can make an adequate return on their investment even after providing the water, sanitary sewer, and storm sewer backbone for most of the Greater West Bench. The completeness of this vision attracts the City of Penticton and the Province of British Columbia kicks in significant grants to move the whole thing along. Residents of the Greater West Bench, including the original VLA lands, recognize a good deal when they see it and approve storm and sanitary sewer for their neighborhoods in a referendum. This enables many residents to operate legal secondary suites and make back their cost of connecting to the sewer within a short time frame. The market value of every house increases as retiring Vancouverites, wary of septic fields and unreliable water systems, show increased interest our unique combination of rural ambiance, proximity to the city, and capable infrastructure.
What then? Can the traditional West Bench retain its rural ambiance, or will there be inexorable pressure to bulldoze and densify? That is a question for the next OCP review in 2028 or 2038. Or, in the case of a boundary expansion, that is part of the negotiation with the City of Penticton as it incorporates the Greater West Bench into its own OCP. There is nothing we can do at this point to tie the hands of future residents and decision makers except provide a clear statement of what we want now. That is the purpose of the OCP.
Of course, developing a clear statement is challenging, because what we want depends critically on who you talk to! My hope is that we have accurately captured the priorities and preferences of residents and have pulled together a compromise that protects what makes our neighborhoods special but, at the same time, recognizes the need for significant change and modernization. Please let us know if you have any questions, concerns. We have every intention of getting the new OCP bylaw adopted before the election season in the fall.
Sources of Additional Information
As you are hopefully aware, we have two web-based outlets for information on the Area F OCP review process:
- The main RDOS site (www.rdos.bc.ca): A more formal site with links to all documents, including the latest draft of the OCP. A link to the Area F OCP page is in in the menu on the right.
- The Area F Director’s website (areaf.rdos.bc.ca): A less formal site, which includes blog entries, and comments from residents. Again, the menu on the right has links to OCP topics.
Both sites appear at the top of the list if you type “RDOS Area F OCP” into any web-based search tool, such as Google.
 In practice, the RDOS never waives public hearings except for the most trivial changes to zoning (e.g., correcting typos in the bylaw). Indeed, for any major zoning change, we typically require both a public information session to address issues raised in Section 1.4 of the OCP (developer-led, informal) and a public hearing (RDOS-led, formal). Still, the point remains: the bar for rezoning is lower for amendments that are consistent with the OCP.