I’ve been investigating problematic influence on the municipal level for over a decade now, with an escalation into research-based advocacy starting in the last 3-4 years. While my usual easy targets are the developers that contribute to campaigns and how easily that can slip into real or perceived conflicts of interest, there are many other instances in local politics where influence can lead to a failure of planning, transparency and general good democratic governance.
Today we are faced a deeper problem besides that more typical developer influence. What happens if an electoral organization (a civic party or “slate”) wins a majority and thereby can bypass pretty much any accountability? What happens when those individuals have applications of their own that don’t have any precedence? This question is not merely hypothetical, but real, here in the Township of Langley.
On June 13, 2022 (yes, just 5 months before the election and in one of the last meetigns of the session), the owners of Roots & Wings Distillery, Erwin & Heidi Rindt, parents of Rob Rindt (I am led to believe is the primary operator, based on his statements), who is also running for council under the Contract with Langley civic party, who also owns a turf farm – both which are sponsors of Eric Woodward’s Fort Langley Project’s Fort Langley Night Market – made an application to expand and turn his tasting room into an evening/night lounge/bar… on farm land:
Personally, I love this space. I think they definitely should be able to keep their COVID-era expanded seating, no different than Festina Lente, Krause Berry Farms, Backyard Vineyards, or any of the other very cool establishments that serve unique tasting experiences. They should have a nicer enclosed permanent patio area. Add to this that this is a distillery that focuses on hard liquor and martini flights, which makes it an especially unique experience that I myself have enjoyed on a number of occasions (the presentation is beyond fantastic!). Despite my obvious personal and political differences with the owner/operator, I still recommend that everyone should check this place out.
So what’s the problem? Well, just like many developers who build some good developments, the problem often isn’t in the application itself – it’s the process.
I’m not a farmer. I don’t know if having people drinking hard liquor with music playing in the middle of rural land is the best idea. I don’t know if it has an effect on neighbouring livestock. I don’t know if it has an effect on public safety. I don’t know if a focus on hard liquor is different than wine & cinder when it comes to drinking and driving. I just don’t know. These are all questions that council members should have to ask. Thankfully, a bunch of independent councillors did just that when the recommendation to the liquor board came before council. Unfortunately, someone, Councillor Woodward, who had a vested interest in helping a friend and political ally, Rob Rindt, used misleading statements to bypass additional public input and just get it approved.
Favours for friends
Surely, if Rob Rindt is elected on October 15, 2022, along with any number of his slate mates, he would recuse himself from the discussion about his own operation. But would anyone else? Would not his slate mates tow the line? It would seem so, since Eric Woodward, whose events that bear his branding, have been sponsored by Roots & Wings and Rob’s turf farm business, stayed on to not only advocate on Rob’s behalf, but actually presented factually misleading statements to the rest of council to persuade them to vote for the application:
…We have quite a few, everything from Fraser Valley Cidery to Backyard to Domain Chaberton to Festina Lente – all with a range of hours, some of which are more in excess of this. You have something like Krause Berry Farm, which is fantastic for the Township of Langley. But it’s basically like a city on there and it doesn’t seem to generate this kind of concern. So what I’m getting a sense of again is that there is a bit of different approaches for different folks – and I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s right… What I see too, is very concerning to me, you know, that people have to be concerned about whats going to happen to their business if they declare for council. That’s what I see going on here. I would be very very concerned that what we are doing is creating a different set of rules for different applicants… Let’s get on with it.”Councillor Eric Woodward, Mayoral Candidate
Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UuIN8QBYFI&t=6276s
So while some council members seek to apply the same rules onto his friend’s application, this must, according to Woodward, be an attack on a potential poltiical candidate. You tell me if this is the definition of gaslighting or Orwellian doublethink. Woodward later on goes on to say one winery on a list he has goes until “Twelve AM everyday”. But he doesn’t mention the winery. He says another is 9pm on Saturday. Again, he doesn’t mention the winery. Still another is 10pm every day. Again, he doesn’t mention which one. He goes on to repeat the “others” (plural) that are open until midnight daily, several times. This is important to remember.
So the crux of Councillor Woodward’s argument is that this is no different than any other vineyard or farm tasting room and he goes so far to say that these other tasting rooms, which he specifically mentions, have a range of hours that far exceed the 12-8pm and 12-10pm that is being requested. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of fact checking at council, but I was doing it from my seat:
- Fraser Valley Cidery: 12-7pm (Wed/Thurs), 12-8pm (Fri-Sat)
- Backyard Vineyard: 12-5pm (Sun-Thurs), 11-6pm (Sat)
- Chaberton Estate Winery: 10-6pm (Mon-Wed), 10-8pm (Thurs-Sat), 11a-6pm (Sun)
- Festina Lente Estate Winery: 11am-6pm (Sun-Sat)
- Krause Berry Farm: 9:30am-5pm
Not a single one of those mentioned have hours close to the 12pm-10pm requested by his applicant team member. And only one, I believe, has a tasting room that specifically has any cocktails on the menu (Fraser Valley Cider), but that is hardly their main beverage.
By the way, Krause Berry Farm is only 40 acres with a group of condensed buildings and an associated gravel parking lot – hardly a “city”, barely even a compound, if you ask me (see below). It serves mostly waffles and berry wines – in the morning and afternoon.
I even went beyond this and couldn’t find a single winery or tasting room on farmland that is open beyond 9:00pm, which itself was a rare exception and offered a full food menu and only one vodka soda option – this is not a place where you order a flight of martinis. I checked out the following popular Langley wineries:
- Blackwood Lane Winery: 11-5pm (Wed-Sun)
- The Fort Wine Company: 11a-6pm
- Township 7: 11am -6pm
- Glass House Estate Winery: 11am-9pm (Sat-Sun), 12-9pm (Wed-Fri)
- Vista D’oro: 11am-5pm (Sat-Sun)
Sitting in council chambers, I was very confused.
As noted immediately from the start of the video link above, Councillor Kim Richter requested this application go to a Public Information Opportunity due to some concern by neighbours – this was verbally supported by Councillors Bob Long, Petrina Arnason, Blair Whitmarsh and David Davis. This is the same process that many other vineyards, including Backyard Vineyards in January 2020, had to go through when they wanted to expand their operation. However, because this 2022 application was during/after the pandemic, such Public Information Opportunities were allowed to be bypassed.
Councillor Steve Ferguson, of course, who would later be announced to also join Contract with Langley with Eric Woodward and Rob Rindt, came to the defence with some obscure quips about the Township of Langley “not being ready to ban motorcycles” (no one had suggested this – there was merely concern that neighbours had with noise levels coming out of a bar-type lounge in the middle of rural land). He continued onto an unrelated narrative about his motorcycles and some groups of people who also ride motorcycles. None of it had to do with the application.
With Woodward’s persuasive arguments that this is no different than any of these other operations, and his accusation against the rest of council that they were treating a potential political candidate with bias, Councillor Richter’s motion to refer to a Public Information Opportunity (which is similar to a Public Hearing) was defeated by Mayor Jack Froese and Councillors Whitmarsh, Kunst, Davis (who flipped likely due to the misleading statements), Woodward and Ferguson. The slightly amended (reducing only Sunday hours to 9pm) application was approved, with only Councillor Arnason opposed.
Knowing that Councillor Woodward generally does his homework, I couldn’t imagine that he would blatantly lie to council. So I continued my research. I looked everywhere for vineyards that were open past 9pm, especially those open until midnight. Finally, I found the mysterious list Councillor Woodward was referring to. It was in minutes from the March 9, 2020 report from staff regarding Backyard Vineyard’s application to open later:
So staff came up with a list with operating hours that were not even close to factual and no one double checked? Had NO ONE on council ever visited these locations? No one questioned whether or not people were drinking martinis at Krause Berry Farms at 11:30pm? That’s because they aren’t. This is obvious to anyone who has been to these wineries. These are not farmgates or patio spaces that are serving liquor everyday until midnight:
“That Council has considered and ENDORSED the request byJune 11, 2018 Agenda for Regular Meeting for the Purpose of Public Hearing
Domaine De Chaberton Winery to locate a 150 person special event
area serving the Domaine De Chaberton Winery located at
1064 – 216 Street, Langley, characterized as having liquor service
from 11:00AM to 11:30PM seven days a week.
That Council has considered and ENDORSED the request byMarch 5, 2018 Agenda for Regular Evening Meeting
Glass House Estate Winery to locate a 115 person winery lounge
(50 person interior and 65 person patio) and a 100 person winery
special event area serving the Glass House Estate Winery located at 23449 – 0 Avenue, Langley, characterized as having liquor service
from 11:00AM to 11:30PM (Wednesday – Sunday).
These are SPECIAL EVENT operators, with limited number of events allowed in a year, but without restriction on which DAY those events can take place. As a restaurant entrepreneur, this is a fact that Councillor Woodward should be well aware of. It’s a fact that the rest of council should have been aware of. But Councillor Woodward had the list – a list compiled by staff that had hours with no qualifications or caveats.
When Domaine de Chaberton had their hours for their Special Event Area in 2018, for example, their following letter of intent states:
As part of the application, the RCMP noted:
This establishment had to go through the whole public input process, be subject to many rules regarding food services and dining siting, and are bound by the Special Event Area legislation that Roots & Wings was able to bypass. But here are the facts. Special events on the ALR are governed by the Agricultural Land Commission. A special event is a permitted non-farm use with a maximum of 150 people within a 24 hours timeline. And most importantly:
A maximum of 10 events of any type are permitted within a calendar year on a farm. For example, 5 weddings, 2 music concerts and 3 art shows. Where more than one farm business is being operated from a farm, the maximum 10 events applies. It is recommended that a record of events be maintained by the farmer including the type of event, date and number of attendees.Policy L-22: GATHERING FOR AN EVENT IN THE AGRICULTURAL LAND RESERVE
There is absolutely no way that Councillors Woodward, a sophisticated politician, and Ferguson, who has been on Council for almost three decades and future candidate Rob Rindt did not know this. Even if they somehow didn’t, this is bordering in willful ignorance or gross incompetency.
What’s interesting to note is that pre-COVID, this would have had to go to a public input opportunity. For example, both of those two special event operation requests by Glass House Estate Winery and Domaine de Chaberton Winery, are directly from the Public Input Opportunity. Furthermore, in January 2020, as previously mentioned, Backyard Vineyards faced an almost identical application – for their more typical winery farmgate. What’s more disturbing is Councillor Woodward’s double standard when it wasn’t someone his Fort Langley Project & Contract with Langley associations are connected to:
REFERRAL Moved by Councillor Richter, Seconded by Councillor Woodward, That the Liquor Licence Amendment for Backyard Vineyard Corp. be referred to staff to work with the proponent to encourage better relationships with the neighbours and to improve noise mitigation; and That staff provide a report with comparative operating hours of other wineries in the Township. CARRIED Councillor Long opposed
So on a request by Backyard Vineyards to expand their patio and stay open until 7pm, 8pm, or 9pm, based on the day, Councillor Woodward seconded and supported a referral back to staff to work with the owners of Backyard Vineyard to get them to work with the neighbours regarding noise mitigation. He did this because of the comments made at the Public Input Opportunity.
However, without the same passionate advocacy from Woodward that he gave the Rindt’s business, council had no problem referring the same type of application, with closing at 8:00pm, back to staff. I have to wonder how the owners of Backyard Vineyard feel about the double standard. Not friends: Woodward sends back to referral. Friends & slate members: fast tracked with no referral OR public input. Interesting enough, in four years, I’ve never seen Woodward oppose additional public engagement opportunities. So why was this so different?
If anyone is getting “different approaches for different folks”, it appears that it is actually Councillor Woodward and his Contract with Langley friend, Rob Rindt.
Here’s the thing: it wouldn’t even matter if these tasting rooms/farmgates were open until midnight every day. The real problem is that we have a councillor so passionately advocating on the behalf of his friend and slate member’s application and what a more controversial application might look like with a team of 7 slate members.
This isn’t about whether or not the expansion of a patio and a longer hours at a bar/lounge on farmland is a good idea or not. I loved visiting Roots & Wings. This is a question of process, influence, transparency and conflict of interest in governance.
Let’s make this factually clear: although the slates and nominations had not yet been announced, Mr. Rindt was already a part of the team at the time of this application, as I had met with him, Mr. Woodward and his campaign team back in March of 2022. So what if Contract with Langley is elected? Even with one recusal, any fact checking can be avoided and they could just rubber stamp any application. Which one of the “Contract” slate are willing to stand up and ask the questions that Councillors Bob Long, Petrina Arnason, Blair Whitmarsh and David Davis asked? Which Contract with Langley member will risk getting gaslit by Woodward? Which one would have the motivation to fact check the erroneous statements of someone who recruited them and said he can get them elected? Or would they take the same position of Woodward and Ferguson, play fast and loose with the truth, misdirect the conversation, and “just get it done”? Or what if a few independent councillors in the minority do fact check? What if they do ask questions? It won’t matter, because they will be voted down.
The Slippery Slope Gets Slippery Really Fast
This is a serious question for Fort Langley. It is no secret that Councillor Woodward owns a significant part of the Fort Langley commercial area. His holdings are fully transparent on his campaign documents, as required by law. Most of my readers are likely well aware that in 2016-17, Eric Woodward was struggling to get an application for his development application at Glover Mary Church through to council. It never went to First and Second Reading so it was never officially approved or defeated. There are a lot of “he said she said” comments about that process, but what is known is that the ordeal eventually led to Woodward’s “white flag” and “pink house” moments.
It is also no secret that the “white flag”, whereby Woodward was done with development, was not permanent. He’s announced various plans of long term land transfers that always seem like “gifts” on the outset. In March 2020, a scheme was proposed to transfer the lands to the Kwantlen First Nation, which would both bypass the Township of Langley development process. The controversy was fraught with misleading statements and a torn community and within a week or two, it had been all but completely routed by the Kwantlen First Nation.
Today, the development concept sits as a submitted application by Fort Langley Properties Ltd., advertised by the Fort Langley Project, under review by the Township of Langley’s Community Development Division since 2019 (according to the Fort Langley Project).
As I told Councillor Woodward even before he was elected in 2018, this could be an amazing project. I was not opposed to the original concept of Glover Mary Church, which I also told him. I’ve seen the concept drawings and although the community would finally lose the privately owned park, which has housed Woodward’s many branded events, it could be a very progressive development – if you’re into that sort of thing. But as we know, MANY people are not.
As the principal shareholder of Fort Langley Properties Ltd., which owns these lands and is the applicant, a hypothetical Mayor Woodward would likely recuse himself of this application once it comes before council. But none of his slate would have to, or would. With a slate of 7, even with losing one to recusal, they could, theoretically, approve an application extremely similar to the one that Woodward alleges that staff and council did not support in 2017. With a stroke of a pen, a Contract with Langley majority could rubber stamp a complete redevelopment and redefinition of Fort Langley, considering how much land Councillor Woodward owns.
I am not against electoral organizations. I was one of the original founders of the Live Langley Electoral Association in 2014. But I am not a significant landowner. Neither were the people we were running or who were associated with the group. We were going to run with a maximum of 4 candidates, with no Mayoral candidate (the slate would later run just 2 candidates, neither were elected). No matter what, we would have to have had to work with others on council if all 4 were elected since we couldn’t form a majority. This was a purposeful choice for greater accountability.
Trust is something that is built over time. There has been both explicit and implicit invocations over the course of the campaign for the public to just “trust” the team. Yet, this one example, which is just one of many that I’ve seen over the years, shows that this trust is not deserved. I strongly believe that the threshold of accountability must increase, not decrease, when you have a sophisticated significant landowner running for public office who has shown that he is willing to bypass engagement and criticism to just get it done “his way”.
Do you believe in a more economically and environmentally sustainable Langley? Do you believe in the work being done here? Do you want to support the work of Better Langley?