"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Council's balancing act explained

The more experienced I become in civic politics, the more I come to understand that the job calls for balancing the minuscule and the gigantic, the intimate and the public, and the practical and the visionary. Nowhere is this more apparent than when council must deliberate on a rezoning application, as we often do—particularly when it involves densification in an existing and well-established old neighbourhood.
Exactly such an issue was on our agenda on Monday night, March 26, as council took part in a public hearing on an application from Springbanks Development (Dogwood) Corp. of Surrey to rezone two lots at 730 and 734 Dogwood Street to allow for the construction of a 22-unit stacked townhouse building.
The lots are half a kilometre from the planned Burquitlam station on the Evergreen Line, a project that is already driving up land prices all along its projected route. The City has long anticipated that increased demand for housing near the line, especially affordable housing of the kind facilitated by multi-family developments, would lead to the redevelopment of existing neighbourhoods and the overall densification of the area.
Although the neighbourhood in question is primarily composed of single-family dwellings, its present designation in the Official Community Plan is “Medium Density Apartment” and its present zoning is RT-2 Townhouse Residential. Springbanks’ application asks for a rezoning to RM-2 Three-Storey Medium Density. Significantly, the OCP would allow for RM-3 zoning, which is even denser.
It is also significant that most of my colleagues on council and I campaigned in favour of taking action to further housing affordability, and that one of the most important and direct actions we can take in this regard is to allow for the construction of more multi-family dwellings, from duplexes and townhouses, to condominium complexes and high-rises.
And so we proceeded with the public hearing, at which several residents of the neighbourhood expressed their heartfelt concerns about the adverse effects of densification. None of them was especially specific about just what those impacts would be, but it was clear that all were worried about how the development would unsettle their neighbourhood and change its character for the worse.
The developer, on the other hand, explained that his project fit into what the City is planning for the area, and that the company had, in fact, gone to great lengths to limit the complex’s profile so that it appeared from one side, at least, to be just two-and-a-half storeys high, not three. I’ve reproduced an architect’s sketch, above.
Ultimately then, our votes would hinge on decisions we would make about the minuscule (one neighbour’s concern that the development would block the breeze) and the gigantic (the City’s vision for redevelopment of Burquitlam), the intimate (a young man’s worry that he would lose the neighbourhood in which he grew up) and the public (supporting the process which led to the development of the OCP), and the practical (local residents’ concern about increased traffic) and the visionary (our commitment to providing low-cost housing).
I realized while considering all of the above that we will be faced with scores, if not hundreds, of such applications over the next three years. We’ll consider each one on its merits, weighing the pros and cons, listening intently, asking questions when necessary, and then attempting to make the best decisions possible.
In the case of the application for the Dogwood Street rezoning, council convened following the public hearing and voted unanimously in favour of giving Second and Third Readings to City of Coquitlam Zoning Amendment bylaw No. 4293, 2012, thus bringing the development two steps closer to reality.

My interview on Roadkill Radio

Terry O'Neill Returns!!! from RoadKill Radio on Vimeo.

Here's my recent interview with Kari Simpson and Ron Gray, talking about my transition from journalism to politics, and much more. Hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rock-solid facts, not emotionalism

Take one part self-serving, subjective and emotional special-interest group, stir with an equal part of one-sided, unbalanced news coverage, and you end up with last week's front-page story in the Tri-City News about the allegedly endangered state of the Coquitlam River.

Last night's council meeting, at which the minutes of a recent Coquitlam River Aggregate Committee meeting were presented (along with last year's annual report), gave me, as chair of CRAC, the perfect opportunity to add some balance and shed some light on what is really going on in the river, and about the role of the aggregate industry (popularly known as gravel mines) in impacting the river. Here are some highlights of my presentation:

We were pleased to learn at our committee meeting that the Ministry of Energy and Mines has developed a new inspection matrix, centred not only on health and safety but also on environmental issues. This is a key, because the ministry is the permitting body which has ultimate control over the mines. The ministry rep at the meeting explained what the standards are and reported that the gravel operations are largely in compliance, except for heavy rain days.

The committee also heard from various members and sources that siltation occurs naturally in the river and that, naturally enough, such turbidity would be associated with heavy rain days.

Significantly, the committee unanimously agreed that tremendous progress has been made in the river's health. This is an environmental success story – an assessment with which the rep from the Coquitlam River Watershed Society was in complete accord.

And this brings me back to the Tri-City News story of March 14, which is based on a subjective report from a special-interest group, the Outdoor Recreation Council, which placed the Coquitlam River on its list of the province’s top 10 most endangered rivers in the province, citing the gravel mines and the impact of development.

But how seriously can we take the ORC's findings when it it blankets itself in mumbo-jumbo, mixing emotionalism and spiritualism. Specifically, the story quotes the Council’s concerns about the “Sacred Headwaters” of the Kokish River on Vancouver Island being of special concern. Sacred? Typical hyperbole and emotionalism -- environmentalism as a religion.

What’s next for the Coquitlam River, calling it the “holy heart” of the Tri-Cities? Or the hallowed heartbeat of Coquitlam Watershed? Or perhaps the “Sanctified Centre” of life in the Northeast Sector? All this sort of stuff, which is typical for green propaganda groups, is designed to stir emotions, not deal with the facts.

Interestingly, the story quotes the chair of the Burke Mountain Naturalists as saying, “We all know the river gets very silty from the gravel mines and that’s not a good thing.” Let me respond by pointing out that our not a single person on the CRAC – not the rep from the Coquitlam River Watershed Society, not the rep from the DFO and not the rep from the Ministry of Mines – said that this is the case. Yes, turbidity does increase in times of heavy rainfall, but it is entirely incorrect to assert unconditionally that "the river gets very silty from the gravel mines."

The Naturalists' representative also said that, “Ideally, what we’d like to see is the turbidity entering the river stopped.” My response: It would not only be impractical and impossible to eliminate all turbidty-causing agents from entering the river, but also completely unnatural. Natural events like erosion are always causing fluxuating levels of turbidty in any natural watercourse.

That said, our committee will continue to do its duty to ensure that the mines live up to their obligations to restrict turbidity-causing runoff so that the Coquitlam River can be a healthy watercourse. That's my fact-based, rock-solid pledge.

(Photo from www.env.gov.bc.ca)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Just say No to politically correct pandering

Jon Strocel, the increasingly well-known and well-read guy behind the local news site, thev3h.com, has criticized the position I took the other day in Council regarding the GHG-reduction strategy being drafted for the City (see March 6 item, below).

I've responded on his site, but will take the opportunity now to reprint part of Jon's comments, and my entire answer, as follows:

Jon Strocel: In our next episode of Coquitlam Councillors Say the Darndest Things, this week Councillor Terry O’Neill’s blog is Exhibit B. The topic is the Community Greenhouse Gas reduction strategy, essentially what the City can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Terry trots out the usual arguments against doing anything to protect the environment. Doing anything will cost too much, and if climate change exists at all, there’s really nothing we can do about it, so we should just adapt.

Global warming is not a controversy, it’s a fact. You may quibble with spending Coquitlam city staff time on how we can help the environment, but obvious contempt for environmental concerns doesn’t win a lot of votes in this town. Let’s review our top vote getters in the past three Coquitlam civic elections: Fin Donnelly and Selina Robinson. The biggest environmentalists on council. We the electorate care deeply about this stuff. Come on Terry, join the forces of growth AND care for the planet AND precious electoral votes. Our children and grandchildren will thank us for it...

My response: It seems to me that there are two distinct parts to your criticism of my position on GHG reduction. 1. That I am wrong and should embrace the truth for the truth's sake. 2. That, regardless of my personal beliefs, I should heed the will of the electorate (which has consistently given poll-topping support to environmentalists) and change my position so it aligns with the majority.

On No. 2, let me say this: I did not run for office to be a mere conduit of received wisdom. My views as a climate-change sceptic were well-known, and I believe that my successful candidacy gives a voice to those who share my position. To change now for the sake of political expediency would be nothing more than political pandering. And, frankly, I don't care if my position makes me unelectable. I'd rather be faithful to what I see as the truth than grovel before the grubby altar of misinformed public opinion.

On No. 1, I am not saying that the climate is not changing. But I do say that: a) the change might be entirely natural. b) But even if mankind is changing the climate, why is it so horrible when mankind is responsible for changing the climate, but it is such a wonderful part of the natural cycle when Mother Nature changes the climate, as she has done innumerable times through the life of our planet? c) And that, regardless of what's behind the climate change, it makes far more sense to adapt to the change than to throw billions of dollars at it--expenditures that will impoverish us, but won't likely make a dent in the climate.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

GHC strategy needs financial details

At yesterday’s public committee meeting, Council heard a lengthy presentation about the City’s draft Community Greenhouse Gas reduction strategy. It is a detailed document, showing how, at the least, GHG goals are now integrated in the very fabric of this city’s future direction.
However, to my mind, the document is too vague in its predictions of financial implications, and overly-detailed in its minute dissection of every tiny little thing that the city is involved in that might have an impact on emissions. Several other councillors agreed on the latter point, and worried about the massive amount of staff time that must have gone into it—especially considering we are awaiting other, more pressing, reports.
Happily, however, as the presentation unfolded and as the answers came from staff, the realization dawned that the city doesn’t actually have to do very much more than what it’s already doing, in the way of densifying new development and encouraging more public transit, to achieve its goals. Moreover, most of these goals will actually be achieved by actions being taken by senior levels of governments. The biggest task ahead for Coquitlam, apparently, is one of collecting and analyzing information, and not taking drastic action to force the public to cut emissions or to do something like buying carbon credits.
Nevertheless, I still have some concerns. Firstly, there’s the odd way in which the reduction targets are stated (and, remember, these are not the targets for reducing City of Coquitlam emissions, but the targets for the entire community). The targets are stated as follows: “Coquitlam will work in cooperation with senior levels of government to reduce the City’s annual community-wide greenhouse gas emissions 15% below 2007 levels by 2031 and per capita annual greenhouse gas emissions 30% below 2007 levels by 2021.”
I find it strange and potentially misleading that the long-term goal is stated first and, moreover, that the goals are stated in two different measures, one being per capita emissions, the other being overall emissions. Using population-growth estimates and 2007 gross emissions, I took some time to do some calculations to restate the goals in a more coherent manner, and here is what I came up with:
The City’s per capita annual greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced 30% below 2007 levels by 2021 and 52% below 2007 levels by 2031.
That’s a pretty daunting ultimate target, but I was assured by staff that it is quite achievable, given current programs by senior governments and current Coquitlam development policies.
Nevertheless, the risk of a growing financial burden exists. Indeed, I found several places in the report where financial implications were noted or suggested—none of which had a dollar figure attached. This worries me. These pages included:
Page 5 of introductory report: Financial Implications. My read on this is that, short term: no implications; medium term: maybe some; long term: let’s stay in touch!
Page 43 has a bit on incremental costs, but no figure. Page 45 has something on expenditures, relating to community carbon offsets, but no dollar figure attached. Page 57, there is a discussion about staff time for monitoring, but no dollar estimate. I quote: “As part of future implementation plan development, it will be valuable to understand……. This incremental cost should be the focus when estimating the true cost of implementing future actions.”
There’s more in the appendix, on an unnumbered page, when there’s a discussion about “Potential financial tools”, many linked to inducements. My take on this is that, where the tax man induces, he must invariably increase elsewhere to make up the difference.
Look, I won’t revisit all the controversies surrounding Global Warming and climate change here, including the many indisputable falsehoods and exaggerations in the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report; or the Climategate scandal, showing how leading global-warming scientists conspired to exaggerate impacts, and suppress information that didn’t fit their models; or even the emerging consensus that, even in the face of human-caused global warming, it might make better financial sense to adapt rather than try to prevent—a strategy, by the way, that would work whether global warming is being driven by natural causes, human ones, or a combination of both.
But I will point out that, in its list of “Key Strategic Risks” facing the city, the Strategic Risk Register that was presented to council earlier this year makes absolutely NO MENTION of any risk being posed to the city by climate change.
In a way, given the long history of this project, it feels like we’re on a ship that set its course five years ago for some fantastic dream port. But since then, the currents have changed, the winds have shifted and, oh yes, we never really figured out how much the voyage would actually cost and how we’d pay for it. Let’s just hope that the best-case scenario – that the targets will be achieved with minimal local expense—comes to pass.
(Photo from my personal files)