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Ida Chong's New Ears

Minister ducked opposition to Jordan River development, say protesters.

By Andrew MacLeod 16 Apr 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Chong: public silence amidst controversy.

On April 14 some 50 protesters gathered outside cabinet minister Ida Chong's community office in Victoria's Oak Bay neighbourhood. They included environmental icon Vicky Husband, the Sea-to-Sea Greenbelt Society's Ray Zimmermann and representatives of the Dogwood Initiative, who delivered Chong a giant pen.

The immediate issue was Chong's failure as of April 11 to sign a Capital Regional District bylaw that would limit development of a large area of southern Vancouver Island that the provincial government released from governance under the tree farm licence system in January 2007. The bylaw will make the minimum lot size 120 hectares in the area, staving off the building rush many locals fear.

"Everyone has the right to protest," said Chong. "Maybe it all could have been avoided."

A few hours before the protesters gathered at noon, Chong had approved the bylaw. "On Friday the last item that needed to come to my attention did, and so this morning I signed off on the bylaw," she said. She'd been waiting for clarification from the CRD about what the bylaw would mean for existing land owners.

Meanwhile, Western Forest Products Inc., which owns the released lands, announced last week it got an application into the Transportation Ministry to create 319 lots on the land, ranging between two and five hectares, under the old bylaws. If approved, critics say, the change will create rural sprawl along some 45 kilometres of western Vancouver Island, stretching from Sooke, through Shirley, Otter Point and Jordan River to almost Port Renfrew.

Better to listen

Besides the oversized pen, the protesters delivered Chong a giant set of ears, the better with which to listen. They accused Chong of not representing the interests of constituents who want to see development controlled on the island.

As outrage about the future of the WFP lands has built over the last 15 months, Chong has failed to take a public stand on the issue. That leads the Dogwood Initiative's Eric Swanson to wonder if her slowness to sign the CRD's bylaw was a ploy to give the company time to make their rezoning application. He wondered if Chong was getting pressure to reject the downzoning and whether she was in line with the Liberal government trying to facilitate building on the forest lands.

Asked what she thinks personally about development of the area, Chong told The Tyee, "The issues regarding land use are up to the local government . . . That's why we have regional growth strategies that member municipalities are involved in."

Nor would she say what she thought of Forest Minister Rich Coleman's decision to release the lands from the TFLs. "Well, what I think is important is those decisions were made previously by the Ministry of Forests and at the end of the day it's up to the local government and it's up to the area how they want to see that area grow."

Auditor General John Doyle is investigating the releases and will report on his findings in May.

Also, the B.C. Securities Commission may be looking into allegations of insider trading of WFP stock in the weeks before the release was announced. A BCSC official said the regulator never confirms when an investigation is underway, but Dogwood's Swanson said BCSC investigators recently interviewed him and others at the environmental organization's Victoria office.

Chong supports Coleman

As the MLA for the capital region constituency of Oak Bay-Gordon Head, she said Coleman's analysis was good enough for her. "The Minister of Forest has indicated that he went through a process and he was satisfied the lands were allowed to be released. He has professional staff that provides that information and I respect that."

In an interview later in the day she added there are times a cabinet minister has to keep her opinions to herself. "I sometimes don't have the luxury," she said. "I didn't want to have these bylaws in any way marred without it being dealt with appropriately and responsibly.

"I guess the awkwardness of this is I am the minister for local government. I can see me making a comment and others say I'm having a biased approach to my job as minister of community services."

Her public silence may not mean she's abandoning local interests at the cabinet table. When she hears concerns about an issue, she said, she does tell the minister responsible. "I do express that to my colleagues, whether I'm a private member or in cabinet now."

'Did what I was told'

Chong's public quiet leaves her critics lots of room. "I've heard not word one from her on the issue until today," said NDP MLA John Horgan, whose Malahat-Juan de Fuca constituency includes the WFP lands. "This was the first substantive answer she's given and it was basically, 'I did what I was told to do, what I was legally obliged to do.'"

She should have been speaking up against releasing the land from the start, he said. "Cabinet doesn't just let these things go. People are there at the table representing not just their portfolio, they have a responsibility to represent the regions as well."

The other cabinet minister from the region, Education Minister Murray Coell, represents Saanich North and the Islands.

"I think with regional growth strategies, one of the prime areas of responsibility is to protect farm land," he said. Development of one area reduces pressure on another, he argued. "Over a period of 40 years we've been able to protect peninsula farm land by developing in areas like Langford that are not farm land."

The former TFL lands are private, he said, so owners are free to apply for a change in use and it's up to the CRD to make the decisions. "I guess my hope would be large portions become public open space or parks as part of that process," he said. "I think the CRD has the powers to do that."

Despite their arguments, Horgan said, Chong, Coell and the Liberal government have made it hard for local government officials to plan for the future. "We're trying to plan and grow and meet the overwhelming desire of people to come to Vancouver Island in a thoughtful and methodical way, and you just open the floodgates for your corporate buddies."

Developer watching

WFP announced last year it had sold 2,550 hectares to Vancouver developer Ender Ilkay, subject to various conditions. Ilkay could not be reached by press time.

In an interview before WFP made the zoning application, he said, "I'm watching and seeing how everything unfolds . . . I don't leave hockey games before the end of the third period, even if the outcome looks evident."

Ilkay refused to say how much money he offered for the property or how much deposit he has paid. Various guesses have been made publicly, he added, and they've all been wrong.

He declined to say what conditions remain on the sale, which has had its original March closing date indefinitely extended, but acknowledged the zoning is key. "Any prudent buyer I think would wait to see how that turns out."

Coleman recently called the issue an "old horse" during debate in the legislature. With the zoning still before the Transportation Ministry and bad feelings lingering from Coleman's original decision, Horgan said the government can't put the issue behind them yet. He said, "It's not going away in my community, not at all."

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