OPINION: Herding cats at Chilliwack city hall

As Chilliwack evolves and expands, prepare to see more and more tension between what developers want, what our city “fathers” think is best for us, what residents want and, of course, what is possible.

Whenever a debate arises over a commercial or residential development in the city, it’s important to keep in perspective what municipal leaders want for the community and just how much control they actually have.

I was struck by a similarity (if tenuous, but bear with me) between the recent controversies surronding a rezoning application for a hazardous waste facility, and a temporary-use permit (TUP) application to allow for a youth homeless centre in a commercial building.

Yes, the first is the much-loathed if equally misunderstood Aevitas Inc. application, approved by city council, to rezone a Cannor Road property to recycle, among other things, transformer oil with PCBs and mercury-filled lamps, all near the banks of the Fraser River.

The second is the temporary-use permit, now withdrawn, to allow for a version of Abbotsford’s Cyrus Centre for homeless and at-risk youth to take over the space currently occupied by Decades Coffee Club downtown.

A much-needed recycling facility and a much-needed youth shelter—both in terrible locations, so say the critics.

Even the most vociferous opponents of both proposals, however, and there are many, suggested just how important and needed both facilities are.

“Just not in that location!” was the battle cry of environmental groups, First Nations and recreational angling organizations regarding the Aevitas proposal.

We need to recyle these materials but why not find a location farther away from the river?

“The proposed site is simply too close to the river,” said World Rivers Day founder Mark Angelo.

Fans of Decades, along with those interested in downtown revitalization, said something similar this week about the Cyrus Centre plan. There is a serious void in services of this kind for troubled teenagers, but why push out a successful local business to do so downtown?

How does this possibly fit with the city’s vision for downtown revitalization?

In both cases, Mayor Sharon Gaetz and, to a lesser degree, the rest of council, have received considerable negative feedback on social media about these supposed decisions made.

City hall can create an Official Community Plan, it can facilitate development with land assembly and low taxes, and it can encourage the business community and other organizations to do what is seen to be best for Chilliwack’s future.

And while important, this must feel like an exercise in herding cats.

No one at city hall decided 200 metres from the most productive salmon fishing river in the world was a great place for a hazardous waste recycling facility. Aevitas picked the property; city council just decided the already industrially-zoned property was a suitable location for the plant.

And no one at city hall decided a successful downtown coffee shop should be evicted to make way for a homeless shelter. That was City Life Church and the Cyrus Centre, who have since responded to the backlash and decided to look for another location.

City hall never even saw this application, which may be hard to understand if you’ve read the hundreds of comments on the subject online.

So while municipal governments cannot control what higher levels do, nor what applications and proposals it receives, the cat herders at city hall end up bearing the brunt of the criticism.

This isn’t always fair.

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