When our family moved back to Langley in 2010, we built our home in the Willoughby neighbourhood of Routley. This more or less accidental decision of location would lead to my relatively heavy, if not opinionated, involvement in Township of Langley politics. Prior to this, I had focused almost entirely on federal politics and had never given much thought to municipal affairs.
My First Langley Experience
I had, what I thought, was full understanding of our Neighbourhood Community Plan, which was one of the earliest Willoughby NCPs, having been adopted in 2001. As one of the objectives of the Routley NCP, the plan had stated:
3.0 NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN OBJECTIVES
…to locate a combined site for an elementary school and neighbourhood park close to a majority of neighbourhood residents – to provide a community focal point;…
It further stressed the character of the neighbourhood to centre around this proposed school:
4.4.3 FOCAL POINT
Routley is a relatively compact neighbourhood defined by the roads that surround it. Given its proximity to Willowbrook and all of the amenities of Langley Regional Town Centre, Routley will not have a broad range of land use designations. Being primarily residential in nature, the elementary school and neighbourhood park will form an important focal point for both active and passive recreation, and community interaction.
Then it explicitly stated:
A typical elementary school should accommodate approximately 400 students – from Kindergarten to Grade 7. Based on estimated population figures for Routley (refer to Section 4.3), it is anticipated that the area south of 72 Avenue will support a new elementary school. Table 5 below illustrates that, if the neighbourhood develops at a base density of 14.8 units per hectare (6 units per acre), an elementary school enrollment of approximately 387 students would be generated south of 72 Avenue – with approximately 514 students overall. If development occurred at an average density of 22.2 units per hectare (9 units per acre), which is considered a realistic scenario,2 an elementary school enrollment of approximately 455 students could be generated south of 72 Avenue. One elementary school could serve all of Routley over the short term. However, based on population estimates, a new school will be required north of 72 Avenue in the future. Based on estimated enrollment (Table 6), a secondary school population of approximately 323 students would be generated in Routley, assuming development at an average density of 22.2 units per hectare (9 units per acre).
With all this in mind, not only did the hundreds of families in the area purchase homes, even the School Board secured the school site and the Township of Langley bought the adjacent lot for the park.
In 2011, with Routley at over 90% build-out and the Yorkson NCP in the full swing of development, a Surrey-based developer entered into a three-way agreement with the Township and the School Board to swap the school site for a townhome site. In the April 11, 2011 meeting of council, a Surrey-based development group presented Council with a rezoning application so that 103 townhomes could be built on the site that the School & Park had been planned for. It passed that first hurdle and went to public hearing that June 27, 2011: the neighbourhood mustered a mighty resistance, flooding the public hearing and signing massive petitions.
Seeing this uprising of controversy coming into Summer and into an election season, Council delayed third reading until after the election. This gave the Surrey-based developers and their affiliates the opportunity to donate $1,000.00 to sitting Councillors Charlie Fox, Bob Long, Bev Dornan, and Grant Ward on November 7, 2011. The group also donated $2,000 to sitting Councillor but failed Mayoral candidate Mel Kositsky, who was considered to be the established pro-development favourite candidate until future Mayor Jack Froese entered the race. All 4 candidates for council won re-election and on February 6, 2012, all 4 voted in favour of the application without (yet) disclosing that they had accepted money from this developer while considering the motion (the financial statements had not been publicly released).
This wasn’t even the only, or even the most controversial decision that went this way that year. Vancouver-based real estate tycoons and their affiliated companies applied for a contentious ALR exclusion near TWU. First and second reading for the application was on November 7, 2011. Two days later, the developers donated $500 to Councillor Long. Councillors Fox, Dornan and Ward would all receive the same amount between November 14th and 17th, 2011. Again, without public disclosure yet available about the connection between the applicants and the Councillor, all 4 voted in favour of the application.
What is Influence?
in·flu·ence: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.
In their ingeniously written article, “The Five I’s of Failed Urban Planning“, Tobi Nussbaum & Miranda Spessot argue that influence is the first contributor to failed planning. Influence, according to Nussbaum & Spessot, “occurs when particular groups or stakeholders have more resources or better access to planners and politicians than other groups, giving them additional leverage in the planning and decision-making processes.”
Campaign financing, the authors go on to say, is just one instance of where the potential for influence is both commonplace and problematic. Although British Columbia banned corporate donations, the easy loophole is to donate not only as an individual, but also have multiple executives and family members donate – which actually makes it harder for the public to understand who is tied to what. Known executives and family members of developers (many not from Langley) were responsible for over 60% of Mayor Jack Froese’s campaign contributions in the 2018 election. Councillor Blair Whitmarsh depended on developer-related individuals for an astonishing 73% of his campaign financing.
Read More: Lack of Transparency in Local Election Reform and Extra-Municipal Influence by Brad Richert
In 2011, some developers actually donated to two Mayoral candidates, which substantially undermines the argument that campaign contributions are merely supporting their preferred candidate. Which one would they vote for if they donate to both? Well, since most don’t actually live in Langley, they don’t have to worry about that conundrum.
Of course, we can never truly know what goes on in the minds of a Council member. A pro-development Council member is going to vote for development and a developer is going to want that person in office. Why someone would vote against a significant element of a Neighbourhood Community Plan that they themselves passed, or for a contentious farmland exclusion to build more mega homes on or, more recently, for a lacklustre, auto-oriented Neighbourhood Community Plan that pretty much looks nothing like what a walkable, sustainable neighbourhood should look like, we can’t know (sidenote: Councillor Woodward attempted to have the Williams NCP re-considered during the November 18, 2019 Evening Council Meeting in light of alleged conflict of interest, but Mayor Froese and council shot this down). Maybe the Council members felt that a school wasn’t actually needed or that the the farmland is better off with housing or that a strip mall is actually good use of the land. They are welcomed to this carry this opinion with or without the alleged outside influence via campaign contributions.
“I have never made a decision in which I considered the source of a previous campaign donation as part of my decision process.” -Councillor Blair Whitmarsh
With the ban on corporate and union donations, there is at least some higher government admission that there is a potential problem with developer donations. Why else would they ban corporate donations? I went back at least ten years into Township of Langley decisions and couldn’t find a single instance of a Council member who accepted developer donations vote against or substantially critique someone who had donated to them – with one exception.
That exception, of course, would be a complicated one. Current Councillor Eric Woodward contributed to Jack Froese’s campaign in 2011. Mayor Froese supported Woodward’s Coulter Berry development and a demolition permit of a 70-year-old building in the Fort Langley Heritage Conservation Area (without any development permit plans attached) in 2012. However, Mayor Froese did not support a similar demolition permit of 11 structures by Woodward’s Statewood Properties in 2018, himself claiming that Council generally wants to see development permit applications associated with demolition permits. It is safe to say, however, that Woodward did not contribute to Froese’s 2018 campaign.
Beyond Campaign Contributions
The challenge of influence, however, doesn’t stop at campaign contributions. As Nussbaum & Spessot also argue, developers also retain greater influence due to their regular access to planners and members of council. The purpose of pointing this out goes to show that influence isn’t relegated to what some might consider a conflict of interest or alleged quid pro quos. The mere fact that someone regularly does business within the Township doesn’t mean that they have greater influence, but it certainly gives a greater opportunity than for those who do not do business with the Township, yet reside in and depend on the decisions made by others.
…residents and community organizations are at a disadvantage, operating on a volunteer basis with limited available time and few resources. Not only can this imbalance impact political decision-making and public service advice, but it also erodes public trust in the planning process, leading to the belief that the scales are tilted. -Tobi Nussbaum & Miranda Spessot
Just ask the people of Routley whether they believe the process was fair – ask if they thought they had the same equal access to their elected officials as those who negotiated a complicated land swap and contributed campaign donations. Even before the residents of Routley knew about the developer’s campaign contributions, by the public hearing, the citizens already had a sense that the deck was stacked against them. That the Routley land swap could even be considered led many to believe that all the backroom dealing required meant that this process was going to steamroll right over top of them – it didn’t matter what the NCP said, or how many people signed a petition or how many people spoke out at public hearing. The sheer amount of negotiations that would have had to happen between the developer, school board and the Township without any transparency to the neighbourhood left the residents feeling completely disenfranchised. As a private citizen, it was heart-breaking to watch how visibly broken down these people felt by the process.
Brookswood Becomes Disillusioned
3 years later, in 2014, the people of Brookswood weren’t going to stand for a repeat of Routley. Fully aware that the new Brookswood-Fernridge OCP was paid for by a group of “landowners” (re: developers), the balance of influence was obviously uneven to begin with. However, insurmountable public pressure with multiple day public hearings forced several councillors to unexpectedly reject the OCP: it was an election year, after all. The big advantage Brookswood had over Routley was numbers. Brookswood was already an established neighbourhood with a significant population. The lone Councillor who, alongside Mayor Froese, held his ground on adopting the 2014 Brookswood OCP, Grant Ward, was punished at the ballot box, losing his long time held Council seat: Brookswood polling stations had him in 19th place out of 22 candidates which easily lost him the election.
The investors had paid half a million dollars for the creation of the OCP, so it wasn’t over. Although Willoughby wasn’t even 1/3 developed, there was immense pressure by landowners to open up Brookswood-Fernridge to development. A slightly revised Brookswood-Fernridge OCP finally passed in 2017 under a new term but with many of the same Council members. Only Councillor Kim Richter and Petrina Arnason rejected the 2017 version, with Councillor Richter claiming the plan did not uphold the DNA of the neighbourhood and Arnason stating that the plan was not forward thinking enough.
What was apparent to the online community groups is that this plan was eventually going to pass no matter what, that there was no way to avoid it and the planning process was intended only to placate the citizens. In speaking with people that have knowledge of the Brookswood Neighbourhood Planning team, I’ve gathered that there is already a sense of hopelessness in the embattled community. After being vocal about wanting to be a part of the Brookswood Neighbourhood Planning Team, one passionate community activist exited one of the NPT for this reason:
“I do not believe for one second that anything we planning team members say will make any kind of difference on this heavily developer skewed neighbourhood plans.” –Scott Thompson, former Brookswood Neighbourhood Planning Team member
The Problem With Landowner-Based Planning
I’m not going to pretend that I am not a pro-development, pro-density, pro-urban supporter. I am. I don’t see big monster homes on large lots as the solution to our city planning woes. This doesn’t mean everything has to be medium or high density, but we do need to have development that is walkable and sustainable, which will require higher densities than what Langley has traditionally built.
If you’ve ever attended a Township of Langley Open House for a Neighbourhood Community Plan in a greenfield community, it’s similar to watching gamblers in Vegas. All the landowners surround the map display and I swear I can hear them yell “BINGO!” when they see their property is on a high density square. Or you hear cursing when someone gets stuck with *gasp* a park. Almost every public hearing that follows a proposed community plan expectedly becomes a debate between those who own property in the soon-to-be developed NCP, who want more density so they can cash out at higher land values, and those nearby the NCP, who don’t want anything new built, or at least want to severely limit the density. These seemingly random placements can be the difference of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
This begs the question: why bother with such engagement? We aboslutely know the interests of these two parties. Why do the current landowners have any say in a neighbourhood that in order for it to be built, they must leave. Not only that, many are pro-actively engaging only so they can attain the greatest amount of profits. Which, inadvertently, is the same reason developers get involved with the planning process. It is not in the interests of the community as a whole to reward land speculators. I hate to say this, but even if you’ve lived on the property for 20, 30 or 50 years, you still don’t have a god-given right to expect more profit just because your neighbour down the street will get more due to the designated zoning. You enjoyed that land for all those years: that was your reward. You probably paid very little for it and the cherry on top is that you will likely do fairly well whether it is a 6-8 UPA designation or a 60 UPA. I understand the challenges of retirement in today’s era, but it really isn’t Council’s prerogative to cushion your retirement plan.
The Big Problem With Developer-Based Planning
The role of municipal governments is to “represent the interests and respond to the needs of their communities” according to BC’s Local Government Act. The goal of private enterprise is to maximize profits for their shareholders. These two interests are not necessarily opposed nor inherently locked in a zero sum game. Yet when one group has so much more influence over the other within the local government, the planning process can become greatly skewed towards to those holding substantially greater leverage.
According to Tobi Nussbaum & Miranda Spessot, candidates in Ontario who received campaign contributions from developers were twice as likely to be elected. In B.C., where a $1,200.00 maximum donation has been set (although developers have been shown to get around this as the executives and their family members will each donate $1,200), it’s even harder to self-fund a campaign. This led several candidates in the Township of Langley to “swap cheques” with each other just to stay competitive with the developer-funded candidates (which, I’ve been told by BC Elections, is legal).
“Developer donations still coming in Langley Township despite rules changes” –Matthew Claxton, Langley Advance Times
“LETTER: Township Mayor and council accepting developer donations not innocent” –Tyler McInneson, Langley
“LETTER: Langley Township councillor refutes conflict perception of corporate donations” –Blair Whitmarsh, councillor, Township of Langley
In a way, the development industry is holding the leverage of their capital as a way to influence an election – if not by direct influence, at least by indirect campaigning. This is, of course, well known. Yet, what is the result? As the aforementioned history shows, there is now a neighbourhood in Willoughby that, although the plan requires a school, will never receive a school. There are monster homes on farmland (justified as “housing for university students”). There are an endless number of disconnected and half-built roads throughout Willoughby. There is no uniform grid street plan, as developers were given free range to “plan” their own lanes and streets. This has directly led to congestion on arterial roads, more cars on the road driving longer distances, and a increasingly problematic parking issue. There is a plan (Williams NCP) dedicated to warehouses and a strip mall instead of a dynamic sustainable neighbourhood. Possibly worse of all, developers were able to lobby for low Development Cost Charges throughout one of the biggest development booms in history, which effectively short-changed residents since the growth would never pay for growth because the developers were not being charged for the infrastructure their development demanded. Only after all this development are future developers expected to START paying – of course, not retroactively. Eventually the missing infrastructure will need to be developed and it will need to come from Township revenue which means taxpayer dollars.
The Township of Langley also did not implement phased development in any of the Willoughby neighbourhoods (although there is reference to it in the OCP and Yorkson NCP), not does it look positive for Brookswood. The lack of phased planning favours the development industry. It allows for a saturation of available lands and therefore lower raw land costs. Lower land cost does not equal greater housing affordability – land values follow the market, not the other way around. One could easily argue that the new Brookswood-Fernridge OCP has actually created an unnecessary competition to current and future residents in the Willoughby OCP. With a fairly steady population stream over the past decade, the saturation of available development lands means more communities will be competing for limited community amenities, there will be more incomplete infrastructure in both communities and the length of build out will be significantly extended. This can also lead to toxic competition among the residents themselves or to consequences harmful to the overall community in favour of the few.
The Case For With Resident-Based Planning
We need housing development: this is just a fact. We need people willing to put up the risk to build homes for other people and be rewarded with profit for doing so. However, we also need proper planning. Developers are more than willing to work within the confines of a good plan. Pushing development to be better for the residents can even reward developers. Developers are not, however, city planners. Their interest begins and ends with profits – this is not an evil thing – but it doesn’t represent the whole of the community. Even if developers had the will, they may not have the knowledge or expertise to understand how their development(s) fits in with a more livable community.
It is the role of the local government to find this balance. Yet the Township of Langley does NOT have a dedicated head city planner or even a planning department. It has a division of “community development” headed by the same person that heads the engineering division. While this may be seen as efficient, it conflates the two different areas of expertise. For those who understand city planning, having these two divisions rolled into one is an obvious conflict that leads to exactly the problematic engineering-based planning that is represented in the Township. This isn’t something I’ve thought up. Everyone from Jane Jacobs to Ken Greenberg, Jeff Speck, Charles Marohn to Charles Schwartz has pointed this out either explicitly or implicitly.
This incurious profession pulls its conclusions about the meaning of evidence out of thin air – sheer guesswork – even when it does design to notice evidence… One wonders at the docility of the students who evidently must be satisfied enough with the credentials to be uncaring about the lack of education. –Jane Jacobs, “Dark Age Ahead”
“A fair percentage of my time was spent convincing people that, when it came to their road, I knew more than they did… I had books and books of standards to follow… In retrospect I understand this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a 14-foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continually. Why? The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard” –Charles Marohn, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer”
I’m not saying this to insult engineers. They just aren’t suited for every role. While it isn’t necessarily “efficient” to have a chief engineer and a chief planner sometimes battling it out, there is a purpose for it. There is a significant reason the head of engineering shouldn’t get to “win” all the time. The conflict between city planners and engineers leads to great communities. It leads to new ideas and innovations. Obliterating one of them, as the Township has, leads to stagnant ideas.
The Township of Langley does NOT have an overarching Township-wide Community Plan. Individual OCP’s and NCP’s do not lay out proper subdivisons or street plans for developers to follow. This continues to lead to poor planning practices that are based in 1950’s-era planning books. Ad hoc community plans are literally purchased by those with the most money, such as Brookswood-Fernridge and Williams. Without strong arms-length guidance, these developers get to choose whatever they pretty much want to do. Yet, once the developer(s) completes their part, they no longer have any further interest in the community: their interest was only financial and inherently temporary.
As I alluded to with the problem of “landowner-based” planning, simply inviting residents of a current greenfield area will not be representative of the future residents. Therefore, extra care must be given in order to develop resident-based plans. This requires an analysis of best practices throughout the world. It requires engagement from citizens throughout the Township of Langley. It requires leadership from a forward-thinking city planner who is at arms-length from any development interests. It requires more transparency on council and purposely reducing the overall influence of the development industry in the creation of community plans, not finding legal or financial justifications for deeper involvement. It requires a genuine, progressive two-way education model between the government and the residents.
It is absolutely unacceptable to have built and continue to build one of the fastest growing communities in the region without resident-based planning and to continue failed planning philosophies into the next. It’s time for the Township of Langley to grow up and enter the 21st century.