Abbotsford council puts sustainability plan on the shelf

The move could make the city ineligible for federal gas tax funds.

Mayor Bruce Banman

Mayor Bruce Banman

Millions of dollars in potential funding are in limbo now that the city’s Community Sustainability Planning Initiative has been shelved.

Last week, council voted to only receive the four-part environmental study, instructing staff to take no further action. The move could make the city ineligible for federal gas tax monies.

But Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman said there is no “immediate risk” because the regulations don’t go into effect until 2016.

When the sustainability initiative was started in April 2010, one of the reasons cited was to meet gas tax funding regulations, which oblige municipalities to create an integrated community sustainability plan.

Currently, Abbotsford has a charter of sustainability, adopted in 2003, but it may not be sufficient to meet federal standards.

Gas tax funding is generated from gasoline taxes and collected by Ottawa. The money is given to the provincial government, which then distributes it, through the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to various capital or planning projects. In January, $8.1 million in gas tax funds was granted to Abbotsford to to help improve the JAMES sewer treatment plant.

City staff are currently investigating whether the 2003 document will suffice, whether improvements need to be made, or an entirely new plan is required.

The other option is to reconsider council’s decision to shelve the sustainability project.

“You’ll see me pull executive privilege to bring it back. There will be direction to staff,” said Banman.

A more immediate concern is the money received by the city to undertake the $318,000 initiative.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities pledged $168,000 ($109,000 has already been received by the city with an additional $59,000 promised at completion) while BC Hydro had agreed to provide $60,000 of the cost upon completion. The city has spent almost $90,000 from its community sustainability budget.

Banman said staff are currently investigating if the funds already received must be paid back, and if so, how much.

The Community Sustainability Planning Initiative includes four projects – the Community Sustainability Strategy, the Green Energy Plan, the Green Economic Investment Study and the Sumas Mountain Environmental Management Study. While related, the four projects are independent and can be completed separately.

The first portion, the Community Sustainability Strategy, had already been received by council in July. However, last week, council was to review the remaining three studies, suggest changes and send them out for public consultations.

Also up for consideration was replacing the controversial Sumas Mountain study – which was created to find a balance between future mountain development and the protection of natural areas – in favour of working on a new, more city-wide Green Community Plan.

The change was suggested after many residents of Sumas Mountain had indicated they did not support the original study, which they felt would impact their private property rights and dictate what they could do on their own land.

Council only received the report, meaning no action would be taken. The draft of a Green Energy Plan, which is designed to identify alternative energy options to help reduce greenhouse gas and reduce energy use,  and the draft of a Green Economic Investment Study, which examines the development of a green economy by creating and using environmentally friendly products, were also received.

Coun. John Smith said the studies were “not what he expected” when he originally voted for them.

He said they contained recommendations and new initiatives, like promoting more densification, which the city already does. They also talk about more bike trails and improved transit services.

“Before you lead the community on into wild expectations of improved transit, we really need to iron out issues like how are we going to pay for it,” said Smith.

“We haven’t really shelved it; we’ve sent a shockwave back through the system to do a better job.”

But Coun. Patricia Ross said the decision means the project has been “thrown in the garbage.

“We’ve spent so much staff time, we’ve had hundreds of man hours from community members that have helped develop the policy. If I was those people I would feel disrespected,” she said.

Coun. Simon Gibson sided with Ross, saying the plans created a vision and it would be poor stewardship to let the work go to waste.

Couns. Ross, Gibson, Bill MacGregor and Dave Loewen voted against Smith’s motion to merely receive the studies.