By Riley Donovan

I thought B.C. NDP Bill 44, which abolishes single-family zoning and public rezoning hearings in municipalities with more than 5,000 residents could not possibly get any worse.

Oh, how wrong I was!

My coverage of this heavy-handed piece of legislation has mainly focused on how throwing open the floodgates to unregulated development will impose a significant strain on infrastructure like water, sewers, and parking.

As if that was not enough, more and more unintended consequences keep rolling in.

By the way, did Premier David Eby and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon really think that unilaterally seizing zoning authority from B.C. towns would have no unforeseen effects?

The latest revelation is that a provision of the bill banning public rezoning hearings will eliminate one of the most important means of preventing environmental damage: community oversight.

The Narwhal (thenarwhal.ca), an independent B.C. investigative journalism outfit, published a lengthy piece on February 6 predicting that Bill 44 will lead to a “catastrophic” loss of trees in urban environments.

The piece showcased the example of Saanich, a district neighbouring Victoria, home to the beautiful but endangered Garry oak ecosystem.

Only three per cent of Garry oak meadows and woodlands, which are associated with more than 100 at-risk species, remain in a natural state. 

Up until now, concerned citizens could regularly attend rezoning hearings and question developers on how their plans would impact this ecosystem.

These hearings did not prevent all development. Rather, they allowed citizens to pressure developers to build responsibly.

In some cases, Saanich council would request a modification in the building plan to save a certain grove of Garry oak trees or preserve a treasured green space.

If Bill 44 comes into effect on June 30, these rezoning hearings – and town council modifications to development plans – will be a thing of the past.

Under this bill, municipalities will have to rewrite their official community plans to reflect a ‘policy manual’ written by the B.C. NDP.

Public rezoning hearings for housing projects consistent with official community plans will then be phased out.

This will even apply to mixed-use projects, where just 50 per cent of the project actually involves housing.

A seizure of power on this scale might sound like something that would take place in a banana republic, but all of this information is publicly available in explanatory documents released by the provincial government.

Saanich is just one particularly revealing example out of hundreds: every B.C. town has a unique ecosystem, whether wetlands, woodlands, or grasslands, and a duty to protect it for current and future generations.

Bill 44’s provision greenlighting the construction of three to six residential units (such as row houses, townhouses, and triplexes) on lots previously designated as single-family, while at the same time banning rezoning hearings, is an environmental disaster in the waiting.

Under this bill, a single-family home on a small, forested acreage could be legally torn down, and the trees chainsawed to make room for a triplex – with no public input allowed.

Housing Minister Kahlon has framed Bill 44 as an expansion of freedom, claiming that single-family zoning is “exclusionary.”

The reality is just the opposite.

In transferring zoning authority from B.C. towns to the B.C. NDP, and in prohibiting citizens from influencing development in their communities, this bill is a profoundly authoritarian restriction on democratic rights.

B.C. citizens still have four months to pressure their mayors to speak out with a united voice against Bill 44.

As the timeline draws closer, I expect the bombshell revelations about this disastrous bill to start dropping with increasing frequency and intensity.

(Riley Donovan is a B.C. journalist and columnist living on Salt Spring Island.)