Livid B.C. homeowners say bylaw to protect ‘sensitive ecosystems’ destroying their property values

Nestled beside Victoria, has always been known for its spectacular oceanfront setting, its winding lanes, rolling parks, pocket farms and tidy residential gardens. Even with a population approaching 120,000, it’s bucolic. But lately, has become synonymous with squabbling.

Bitter arguments. Finger pointing. Endless town-hall sessions. From at least one of the district’s most prized neighbourhoods, there have been cries for secession, calls to join an adjacent municipality. A special district council meeting was held Wednesday night; it lasted well past midnight and solved nothing.

According to residents, the problem is property rights. Specifically, their erosion.

A controversial bylaw meant to protect “ecologically sensitive” areas in Saanich has been too broadly applied, by over-zealous district staff bent on protecting every native plant, every creature that’s not human, or so goes the complaint from livid . One Saanich couple claim they are no longer permitted to cut their own grass.

Chris and Charmaine Phillips say the district’s Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw prevents them from altering or improving most of their 1.5-acre property. This has carved almost 45 per cent from the land’s assessed value, they claim.

Our case is minor compared to some of the horrible stories in the neighbourhood.

The couple moved from the Cayman Islands to Saanich for their retirement, and bought a waterfront property four years ago, for $1.75 million. They intended to tear down the 1970s-era house, which they describe as “horrible,” and build a new one. They soon discovered their property is considered ecologically sensitive and is covered under the EDPA, which came into effect just two months before their purchase.

They say they are prevented from doing anything with their property, away from their current home’s footprint. They commissioned reports from two professional biologists in an appeal to the district’s EDPA edict. The reports concluded the property is not ecologically sensitive, to no avail; they were ignored, claim the Phillips.

Given the restrictions placed on their land, they doubt they could even sell it. According to Chris Phillips, Saanich’s manager of environmental services said the district “owns” his property.

“You just rent from us,” Adriane Pollard allegedly told him.

Pollard denies having ever said that. She insists the EDPA isn’t nearly as onerous as some folks make it out, noting that most municipalities have an equivalent, or something resembling it.

canadapropertylistings.comcanadapropertylistings.comChris and Charmaine Phillips say their Saanich property has lost nearly $1 million in value due to bylaw restrictions on so-called eco-sensitive private property.

The Saanich bylaw is intended to “protect rare ecosystems, plants and birds, including bald eagles and blue herons,” she says. Lawn mowing is not completely prohibited, Pollard adds, “but you can’t clear native habitat.”

Still, she acknowledges that concerns have been raised about property rights and property values.

That’s an understatement, says another frustrated Saanich homeowner, Mark Insley. His property was placed under EDPA coverage, determined by aerial mapping surveys conducted two decades ago. When he applied for a building permit to patch up an old set of stairs leading down to his beachfront, he ran into trouble.

Insley was told he needed a special EDPA permit. That meant submitting a biologist’s report, which, he says, “was entirely ignored” by the district. It countered with what he describes as “insane arguments” against his stairway rehabilitation project.

Insley says he and his family lost two summers of beach activity, because of the district’s extreme eco-sensitivity. “Our case is minor compared to some of the horrible stories in the neighbourhood,” he says.

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According to published reports, about 2,000 homes sit on EDPA-protected areas. Most were built before the bylaw was conceived. People who have owned properties for decades are struggling to understand how their manicured yards have become precious ecosystems. Meanwhile, Insley adds, Saanich parks are “run amok, full of invasive plant species.”

The district’s elected council seems split on the matter. While Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell has called the EDPA “punitive” and has attempted to scrap it, his efforts have met with opposition.

The special district meeting held Wednesday was yet another opportunity for the mayor and others to air their EDPA grievances. Which they did, over six exhausting hours.

The result: council agreed to review the aggravating bylaw and, possibly, to revise it. Insley and others fear that means no improvements will be made, that residents won’t recover their rights and that they will be literally trapped into corners, on their own properties.

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About Brian Hutchinson