Habitat saviour still flawed

For fish: Government efforts lacking, regulation ineffective.

Riparian area: Development closely encroaches upon the city’s Turner Creek

Riparian area: Development closely encroaches upon the city’s Turner Creek

If fish could talk, they’d probably have good things to say about RAR.

The Riparian Areas Regulation is intended to protect fish-bearing waters and habitat by stopping encroachment from development.

The intention, however, is not translating into action that satisfies many humans involved, nor, probably, the fish.

Salmon Arm witnessed firsthand the flaws with RAR during the SmartCentres applications in 2011.

In February of this year, B.C.’s Ombudsperson Kim Carter gave an update on 25 recommendations regarding RAR she provided in a critical review in March 2014.  The review determined government oversight of RAR fell short. At that time, the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations accepted all but one recommendation.

However, a year later, acceptance hasn’t meant discernible changes.

In her February update, Carter said that as of December 2014, the province had implemented just one recommendation, updating its website to accurately reflect the ministry’s responsibility for RAR. She said action was still required in other areas.

“We are still in the early stage of implementation,” said Carter. “Many of our recommendations address challenges that stem from the application of a professional reliance model in environmental protection.”

Under the current regulation, a developer hires a Qualified Environmental Professional, or QEP, who examines a riparian area and gives a recommendation that determines how close development can occur to a watercourse.

Both the local environmental group, WA:TER (Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response), as well as the city’s planning staff  have expressed concerns with RAR.

In fact, WA:TER’s experience with RAR was cited in the initial Ombudsperson’s report. Its members were responsible for protecting 40 acres of the Salmon River delta surrounding the SmartCentres site, when the professional reliance model did not.

In response to the Ombudsperson’s update, WA:TER found the B.C. government has failed to remedy two fundamental flaws.

The first is in response to the Ombudsperson’s recommendation that  the ministry review all QEP assessment reports indefinitely. Instead the ministry will review reports for two years.

The second flaw, stated WA:TER, is the failure of the province to avoid placing QEPs in a conflict of interest.

“In order for a professional reliance model to be effective,” states WA:TER, “when a qualified professional evaluates a proposal, that professional must be independent, financially and otherwise, of whomever developed the proposal.”

In response to questions from the Observer regarding conflict of interest, the ministry stated the Ombudsperson had not recommended the changes WA:TER has suggested and did not reject the ministry’s fundamental approach.

“We are unaware of any conflict of interest in the ministry’s application of the model. If there is a specific complaint about a professional’s conduct, that complaint should be directed to the professional’s association.”

Also frustrated with RAR are city staff.

In response to a request from the provincial government to municipalities following the Ombudsperson’s March 2014 report, Kevin Pearson, director of development services, wrote to the ministry to describe the city’s experience with RAR.

In the city, prior to any development requiring a building permit, land subject to RAR is identified through the development permit process.

The property owner can register a covenant that restricts development within a standard 30 metres from the high-water mark. The other option is to hire a QEP, who in many instances determines the 30-metre ‘no development zone’ can be reduced.

However, the city has no resources to monitor or enforce compliance, wrote Pearson. The city’s options are limited to preventing or allowing a development.

Pearson told the Observer the goal of RAR is worthy and the city does its best to administer it. However, “it puts the city in the middle between the developer and the regulation…”

Recently ministry staff, who are now monitoring all QEP reports, sent the city one, two and three notifications on single reports, saying they have issues with them, implying the city should delay approvals. The issues are mainly technical ones, Pearson said. The city has not delayed them.

The regulation states the city requires only notification the report has been received by the ministry.

“If they really want to have a say and hold up development until the ministry approves it, then they have to change the regulations.”

Pearson says many of his counterparts also consider RAR flawed.

The ministry told the Observer it is reviewing more than 100 bylaws, the results of which will be publicly available this summer.

“(It) will inform our next steps with regards to promoting and ensuring full local government compliance with RAR.”