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Maple Ridge councillor wants to roll back stream setbacks

Amanda Crowston with ARMS by an urban creek that they found fish in at the corner of 222nd St. and 126th Ave. in Maple Ridge in 2012. - The News/Files
Amanda Crowston with ARMS by an urban creek that they found fish in at the corner of 222nd St. and 126th Ave. in Maple Ridge in 2012.
— image credit: The News/Files

Maple Ridge Coun. Al Hogarth wants to roll back setbacks on Maple Ridge’s creeks and streams by switching to the more developer-friendly riparian area regulations.

Hogarth, a realtor, made the motion at council’s Tuesday meeting, which means discussion will take place at a future meeting.

Maple Ridge currently uses the streamside protection regulations developed by senior and local government scientists and environmental groups.

Those rules usually require any developments to be set back between 10 to 30 metres from stream banks.

But in 2005, the B.C. government allowed cities to adopt riparian area regulations that usually required smaller setbacks than developments can be from streams.

Coun. Michael Morden, who’s running for mayor, supports a review of Maple Ridge’s current regulations.

“From what I’ve been told, there’s no bylaw, there’s no in-stone regulation,” he said. “I don’t have any preconceived notion as to where this is going to go.”

Leaving large conservation areas, or green belts around streams, could be creating a long-term liability for the district, he added.

And stream setbacks in some cases are resulting in narrow houses in crowded developments.

“Sometimes these streamside regulations come into play on that.”

But for Ross Davies, with the Kanaka Education and Environmental Partnership Society, the current streamside protection regulations are working.

“I’m extremely happy with the streamside protection regulations and they have served us quite well. I don’t think the thing is broken and needs fixing.”

Hogarth says moving to riparian regulations would make the rules more consistent with other cities.

“It seems a bit sporadic. We have two different sets of maps within the system. Just want to see where we get to here.”

But he couldn’t cite any specific occasion where the rules became confusing. Hogarth said most cities have adopted the provincial riparian area regulations, which he said are scientifically based.

“It’s much easier to follow one regulation rather than a series of different ones.”

Langley township, Surrey, Delta, Burnaby, the District of North Vancouver and West Vancouver follow streamside protection regulations.

Pitt Meadows, Vancouver and Coquitlam use riparian area regulations.

While streamside protection regulations allow more local decision making, “Is that level of autonomy fair?” Hogarth asked.

He didn’t know of specific developers avoiding Maple Ridge because of its current stream rules.

With the notice of motion introduced, council will discuss the issue at its April 22 meeting. It then could adopt the riparian area regulations that night or it could refer the issue to a new environmental committee, which Hogarth would support.

The district’s streamside protection rules have worked well for the last nine years, said Maple Ridge’s environmental planner Rod Stott.

Maple Ridge council formally endorsed and adopted the streamside protection regulations by resolution in 2005.

However, the regulations are not in the form of a fully fledged bylaw because that would reduce flexibility.

That’s to the benefit of homeowners and developers, he pointed out, because the regulations aren’t as unbending as a set of bylaws and allows the district to vary setback distances to accommodate builders and adjust to a particular site.

Under riparian area regulations, senior government approval is needed to reduce setbacks. “It’s time, it’s money,” for developers or municipalities awaiting approval for a project.

Under the streamside protection regulations, there’s also more local decision-making autonomy, Stott pointed out.

Stott said regulations would never preclude development of a site. If a site required a large conservation area, developers and the district would work to vary setbacks to ensure building is possible, providing it can be done safely.

The zoning for a site would determine how a project is built, he added.

Usually about a quarter of the site is needed for conservation purposes.

Requiring the setbacks, which become conservation areas, also means room enough to build bike and jogging trails. Otherwise, the district would have to buy land for those purposes.

Without those areas, “We probably wouldn’t have half the trail systems that we have now in place.”

For those lucky enough to live beside such green areas, home values are about 20 per cent higher.

Stott said there are many studies which show that conservation areas save cities millions of dollars because they reduce the need for stormwater systems, conserve water, controls erosion and filters pollution. Such a system allows development to work with existing land rather than shaping land to fit development.

Many cities are now restoring ecological features for that purpose, Stott added.

“Ultimately, it saves the taxpayer money.”

Salmon are also returning to many of those streams, he pointed out.

Stott said the majority of conservation areas are self maintaining and costs are miniscule, apart from removing the odd tree, compared to the savings they produce.

After nine years, since being endorsed by council, Stott said just more than 400 development applications have been processed under the streamside protection regulations.

“We haven’t had any come back to bite us.”

Protecting streams

Streamside protection regulations were created after federal, provincial and municipal governments took a scientific look at the best way to protect fish and aquatic areas as development occurs.

Buffer, or green areas along stream banks are crucial to the health of fish and water because trees provide shade, cool the water, filter pollution and help supply nutrients and control erosion.

Generally, the streamside protection regulations require setbacks of 30 metres from top of bank of a stream that contains fish and where there’s intact vegetation sheltering the stream.

For smaller creeks that are linked to fish-bearing streams and which provide nutrients, the setback is 15 metres, while the setback for large ravines is 10 metres.

In built-up areas, such as downtown Maple Ridge, or on the Fraser River, where development has already taken place, the setback can be as little as five metres.

Maple Ridge’s environmental planner Rod Stott says the regulations have been studied and proven to protect fish and fish habitat.

“There’s no such science in place for the riparian area regulations, which is what Coun. Hogarth wants to change to.

“There’s no scientific body of literature that supports RAR.”

Under riparian area regulations, the general distance is three times the wetted area of a stream.

“If you applied RAR to [some parts] of Maple Ridge, the setback would not reach the top of bank.”

Under the streamside protection regulations, environmental consultants and municipalities determine stream setbacks. But with riparian area regulations, it’s more about how to meet the standards that have been created by the development industry.

So far, no one has provided scientific evidence that it preserves fish habitat, Stott said.

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