In 2018, Cowichan Valley residents voted on what issues they wanted our team to look into. Development was at the top of the list. By listening to the community we saw the need for a better understanding of how residents can help shape the future of their communities.
The Cowichan Valley’s population is expected to grow by almost a third by 2050, and this population surge has big implications for the future of this place.
Will we continue to encroach into the wilderness with sprawling rural subdivisions, as has been the trend in past decades, or plan for something different?
Will our neighbourhoods be resilient in the face of coming challenges of climate change? Will water resources be abundant enough and clean enough to supply drinking water to communities and provide for healthy natural environments?
There’s no reason to feel helpless in the face of these hard questions. The good news is that everyone who lives here has a right to contribute to imagining and planning for this community’s future. The bad news is that it can be extremely hard to find the information needed for just a baseline understanding of community planning and development processes, and how to contribute to them. At the end of the day, the decisions will be made by those who demand a seat at the table.
With that in mind, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.
Step 1: Go for a walk, a bike ride or drive
The first and most important step to building the future neighbourhood of your dreams is understanding where you live as it is today. Explore where you live with a curious and open mind. Look for things that are different or changing. Pay attention to signs — if a development is going in and there is an opportunity for public input, there should be a sign at the property with at least a little bit of information to point you in the right direction.
Think about what works in your neighbourhood, and what could be better. Ross Blackwell, CVRD’s general manager of land use services, says that the Cowichan Valley, like most of British Columbia, wasn’t really developed with the interests of people and neighbourhoods in mind.
“It was developed as a resource extraction area that people worked in. So we provided the bare minimum to service those industries, in terms of where people lived and how they got their provisions and so forth,” he says, “versus creating wonderful places for people, and businesses pop up to support that. It’s two totally different constructs.”
It’s up to communities to recognize this, and to demand change, Blackwell says. “We have to retrofit our communities. We have to go back and fix them and make them better places for people. Places that are inspiring and inclusive. Places that allow people to age in place safely. Places that are safe for kids to walk and ride bikes in.”
Blackwell’s vision and mission is “to empower people to start talking amongst their friends and family, to really advocate for some of these priorities.”
Step 2: Pick up a newspaper
These days there are so many different ways to get the news, and the newspaper no longer holds the dominance it once did as a source for local information. However, if you’re not flipping through a physical copy of your local paper, you’re likely to miss important bits of communication relevant to your neighbourhood and its future.
The local news section is important, but you’d be wise to also keep an eye on the ads; newspaper advertising remains the primary way that local governments communicate with the public. The B.C. Local Government Act actually requires regional districts and municipalities to announce certain things in newspaper ads, including when there will be a public hearing about a development project. If you’re not scanning the newspaper, those announcements are easy to miss.
The local newspapers to the Cowichan Valley Regional District are the Cowichan Valley Citizen, the Lake Cowichan Gazette, the Chemainus Valley Courier and the Ladysmith Chronicle. They are all owned by Black Press, so the content tends to overlap. If you consume your news online but don’t want to miss communications from your local government, check out the free electronic editions, which are full digital copies of each newspaper, available via the websites.
Step 3: Get to know your local government
Local governance in the Cowichan Valley Regional District is complicated.
There are four municipalities: North Cowichan, Duncan, Ladysmith, and Lake Cowichan. If you don’t live within the municipal boundaries of one of these, then you belong to one of nine electoral areas of the CVRD.
The Cowichan Valley is part of the unceded traditional territories of Coast Salish Indigenous peoples. Within the CVRD there are 34 First Nation reserves, belonging to Cowichan Tribes as well as the Ditidaht, Penelakut, Halalt, Stz’uminus, Lake Cowichan, Lyackson, and Malahat First Nations. These are owned and managed by their respective First Nations, and residents maintain the right to vote and participate in the CVRD electoral area they are located in or nearest to.
If you live in a municipality, you are represented by a mayor and councillors who work together to make decisions on the public’s behalf. If you don’t, you are represented by a member of the CVRD board elected for your specific electoral area. You are welcome to contact your representatives to ask questions and provide your feedback on things that impact your community. They work for you!
The most comprehensive way to keep track of your local government is to check out the public meetings. Any significant developments or other changes to the neighbourhood will have to come in front of your government at some point, and if you’re keeping an eye out, you’ll be almost first to know. Meeting agendas are public and published online in advance, so you can figure out if something anything you’re interested in will be discussed.
See our resource guide below for how to keep track of what’s happening in the CVRD and the municipalities. Meetings of the CVRD board, the Municipality of North Cowichan, the City of Duncan and the Town of Ladysmith are recorded live and available to go back and watch at your convenience.
Step 4: Join a neighbourhood group
Staying on top of what’s happening in local government, land use planning and development is truly challenging and time consuming, even if you know what you’re looking for and where to look. Consider spreading the work out by joining or forming a local neighbourhood association. You’ll meet other people interested in your community’s future, and your brain power will combine so that you can know more and push for change more effectively.
In North Cowichan, community groups recently succeeded in asking for more consultation on proposed development projects, earlier on in the process. Because they worked together, these groups will now have a greater shot at designing the future neighbourhoods they would like to live in.
Step 5: Participate in an official community plan
If you wait until there’s a public hearing on a proposed development to tell your local government what you want your community to look like, you’ve already pretty much missed the boat, says Blackwell from CVRD’s land-use department. “That’s at the 11th hour, really. That’s kind of a Hail Mary situation — it’s a last-ditch attempt to trying to create this development in the way that they want to see it.”
The real chance for community input is in the development of official community plans, he says. These are documents that set the stage for all land use planning and development, and are intended to deeply reflect the wishes of the community. “You can’t really have a good OCP [official community plan] without it being driven by the community.”
All four municipalities and all of CVRD’s electoral areas are covered by official community plans, which are updated periodically with community input to reflect changing attitudes and values. The CVRD is currently working on a major update of its official community plans, bringing all of the electoral areas together in one set of policies and rules, and then consulting with the public to bring the document in line with the community’s current vision, Blackwell says. That consultation is expected to begin in the first half of 2019 and last for about a year. It’s a big opportunity for the public to come out and say what it wants the future of the Cowichan Valley to look like.
That official community plan will go on to inform all the rules for development, including how the environment will be protected as the population grows. It will be the foundational document for both elected officials and government staff in making decisions on the future of this place. Which is why it’s so important that the public be given every chance to participate, says Blackwell.
“We are going to design [the consultation] to maximize the opportunity for the community to provide that expression, remembering that the key principle of an official community plan is that it is the community’s document, it is the community’s vision.”
Resources where you live
Want to get know your local government? Here are some quick facts and links to get you started.
The CVRD is made up of four municipalities and nine electoral areas. If you’re not sure which you belong to, the board’s website includes a guide. Once you know which of these you live in, you can figure out who represents you on the CVRD board, and how to contact them, here.
The CVRD board typically meets on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, and a full calendar of their meetings is available on the website. Meetings take place at 175 Ingram St. in Duncan. Agendas for upcoming meetings are published the Friday before. Agendas, minutes, and video from past meetings can also be accessed through the website.
The CVRD recently produced a Development Handbook, with information about how development projects get approved, details around when and how public input will be considered.
The Municipality of North Cowichan is the largest of the CVRD’s municipalities, with about 30,000 residents. It includes the communities of Chemainus, Crofton, Maple Bay, and much of the urban area commonly referred to as Duncan, including the University Village neighbourhood and the Sherman Road area. Its boundary to the west cuts about half way through Sahtlam.
North Cowichan residents are represented by a mayor and six councillors. You can learn who they are and how to reach them here. The municipal hall is located at 7030 Trans-Canada Highway, just north of the turn off to Highway 18. Regular council meetings generally take place at 1:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of the month, and a full calendar of meetings is available on the website.
As of 2019, public hearings on proposed developments will take place on Thursday evenings, rather than during regular council meetings on Wednesday afternoons. The municipality is also working on an online tool called Building North Cowichan to make it easier to find information about proposed developments. The tool is currently available but incomplete; a full launch is planned for February 2019.
For developments with an upcoming public hearing, North Cowichan compiles a binder of information, including the development proposal and any public comments on it, which can be viewed at the Development Services front desk, downstairs from the front entrance of the municipal hall.
The City of Duncan is among the smallest cities in Canada by area, covering just two square kilometres. Its population is about 5,000 people, represented by a mayor and six councillors. If you’re not sure if you live in Duncan, check out this map. City Hall is at 200 Craig St.
Council meetings are generally on the third Monday of the month at 6 p.m. Meeting schedules, agendas, minutes and video of meetings can be accessed through the city’s CivicWeb portal. Those interested in development might pay special attention to meetings of the advisory design panel, which reviews proposed developments in order to make recommendations to council on how and if they should be allowed to proceed.
The Town of Lake Cowichan is located at the east end of Cowichan Lake, at the outflow to the Cowichan River. According to the last census in 2016, its population was just over 3,200, represented by a mayor and four councillors. Town Hall is at 39 South Shore Rd. Council generally meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m., and a full schedule of meetings, agendas and minutes are available online.
Lake Cowichan recently produced a draft update of its official community plan after consultation with residents.
The Town of Ladysmith sits at the northern boundary of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, and has a population of about 8,500. City Hall is at 410 Esplanade Ave., where residents are represented by a mayor and six councillors. Council meetings generally occur on the first and third Monday of each month at 7 p.m. Meeting agendas, minutes and video are available on the town’s website.