Is the Township of Langley failing at community engagement?

Community participation and engagement is a two way street. It isn’t up to the government to strongarm residents to show up. Unfortunately it often takes significant controversies to bring people out in front of Council, at which there is frustration and lack of constructive dialogue.

However, with the Township of Langley sticking mostly to traditional newspaper advertising, which has limited demographic reach, and dismantling the well-intentioned but ill-executed “Community Participation, Infrastructure and Environment Advisory Committee”, is the government really doing its part in community engagement? If they aren’t, how would they know?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Township of Langley has made huge improvements in developer open houses and online transparency. However, much of these practices were born out of that now defunct CPIE committee. As one of the first voting members on that committee, I know the committee struggled for a number of reasons but it had its uses.

Last night I was reminded how difficult it is to get people engaged. I watched Council endorse a 46-seat brewery lounge that will be open until 1:00am at 202nd Street and 62nd Avenue after a quiet Public Hearing on a snowy evening. According to the proponent, the “Composition of the Neighbourhood” is primarily for industrial and commercial use, with zoning for manufacturing, industry and commercial buildings… with some residential property. They followed this up with a list of benefits for the community.

Personally, I don’t take issue with such a brewery lounge. However, after the vote was cast, I went back into my notes after I realized the one vocal opponent mentioned she ran an adult-oriented dance studio. At that moment I realized this brewery was right by at least two extremely popular children’s dance schools in the immediate vicinity (one of which is within eyeshot). Many of these little dancers – from toddlers to teens – are in and out of their studio with just their ballerina/dance uniforms until 9:00pm or later. There is also a children’s MyGym in the building just down the street. Without proper community participation, Council knew nothing of this. Even I, with my own children attending the dance studio within eyesight of this new lounge, didn’t really know about this until the night of the Public Hearing. Is it my fault for being too busy to read the agenda? Sure, I’ll own that. But it doesn’t solve the problem.

Even as I write this, I’m not necessarily opposed to this lounge, though it may seem like it. I’ll probably even enjoy a cold one after I drop off the girls at dance. But I think the information about the dangerously curved street, the lack of sidewalks on 62nd Ave and the hundreds of young children in the area should have been known to council and it is probably only through public engagement could they have known. This is a lounge without food. The sole purpose is to serve alcohol. Serving It Right is admittedly a joke. How many times have I seen someone obviously inebriated leave a pub/lounge without being questioned by staff? Could these drivers navigate this problematic street full of children? Are there not issues that could have been raised to mitigate potential problems? But without public engagement, the application passed without any critiques to the issues above. I personally regret not looking into it beforehand, but I also want to see what we can do better.

View of ballet studio from lounge

I live within a walking distance of this brewery (a long walk, but still a walk). I looked for what sort of public notices were mailed to the public, but couldn’t find any. Even if there were, where would those notices go? Certainly not to the homes of the children’s parents who are affected, as the dancers come from all over Langley. Not to nearby homes as their distance are not problematic for a brewery. So how was all this missed?

Personally, having potential drunks watching young girls come out of dance classes in the evening is itself a bit concerning. Whether the issue is the “element” that a lounge can bring or the fact that drunk driving is a very real problem, especially on a curved road where many children walk, there are a lot of issues here but the reality is that no one was really notified. Disturbingly still, the proponent didn’t even attempt to properly characterize the area and neighbouring businesses in their application to Council. The RCMP letter said nothing of this, which is another concerning issue. We don’t locate pubs by schools, so why are we putting one where hundreds of children are throughout the afternoon and evenings?

The next day when I asked some parents of the dance studios if they were aware of this, they said no. When asked if it would be of concern to them, they said yes. But the Public Hearing is over. Only one person showed up. This leads me to ask, does the Township of Langley expect people to look in the Langley Times every week at a page that is not exactly user-friendly for something that may affect them? I’m probably a bit more informed than most and yet even I missed it because of a busy weekend.

What is the municipality’s responsibility in this? What sort of outreach, realistically, can the Township really do? Could having an advisory committee, at the very least, focused on community participation have helped here, when there is a good chance this decision could come back to haunt council? It’s too late to do anything about this particular application, but it shows that we need better practices to build a better community with businesses who will be good neighbours.

When the community feels like they aren’t listened to or given proper notice, they don’t engage until it has built up to be a huge problem. Then little NIMBY groups pop up and oppose absolutely everything – even good development. Council usually then dismisses such voices because they don’t offer constructive criticism, so we end up with bad planning and bad development with no credible critique. So wouldn’t it be in the Township’s best interest to prevent such opposition by properly engaging with the community on the small everyday issues?

I hope that Council, in their wisdom, chooses to bring back a community participation advisory committee of sorts that isn’t bogged down by an overwhelming scope of reference. I believe that this advisory committee could focus both on the general best practices of community participation as well as pre-empting specific problematic applications simply by asking is the community informed? Who should be informed before a problem arises? How should we inform them?

There are incredible modern tools available to cities and governments who have the will to engage with their residents. I hope that the Township of Langley can utilize new technologies and processes to build on a more transparent way of governance. Relying on archaic print advertising simply isn’t working.

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