COLUMN: Five big city issues from the past year (and for the next one, too)

Reporter Tyler Olsen dishes on the year’s biggest city hall stories from 2017 (and possibly 2019)

Paying attention to municipal politics is a lot like watching a three-week bike race. It sounds like eye-gouging, mind-numbing stuff and, if you tune in only for five minutes here or there, it likely is.

But every so often something happens of interest that makes you sit up and take notice.

And sometimes, bolstered by a growing knowledge of storylines and history and the personalities over the course of days and weeks, a moment that may pass unnoticed by the casual observer reveals itself to be of larger significance.

All of which is to say, with 2018 on the snowy horizon, here are five big 2017 city stories that will continue to impact Abbotsford residents over the coming year.

1. Industry vs. Farmland: By far the most controversial decision by Abbotsford council this year – and probably this term – was to give the go-ahead to ask that around 500 acres of farmland be excluded from the Agricultural Land Reserve in order to increase the city’s supply of industrial land.

A study had found the region would soon run out of industrial land, and two study areas identified in the Official Community Plan were eyed as possible solutions.

But the public was split on the proposal, and dozens spoke against it at a marathon public meeting.

Council voted 8-1 in favour of the plan, with only Coun. Patricia Ross opposing the move.

Mayor Henry Braun and the rest of council said more industrial land is necessary to keep Abbotsford’s growing population employed locally, but Ross said she wasn’t convinced the jobs of the future would require more industrial land. The ALC has yet to decide whether to actually exclude the land.

2. Land rush: Across Abbotsford, developers have been building – and buying – major properties at an unprecedented rate. They are reacting to rapidly increasing home values across the Lower Mainland and a city that wants to encourage more multi-family housing projects.

Those factors have led to a surge in proposed new apartment and townhouse complexes.

They also helped drive the sale of major blocks of developable land in Abbotsford, with Sevenoaks Shopping Centre, the old site of the Clayburn Brick Plant near downtown, and the Vicarro Ranch site all changing hands for millions of dollars.

But much of the housing has yet to be built, as shown by a November report that revealed Abbotsford had just a 0.2 rental vacancy rate – the lowest in the country.

3. Green lights: The city gave the go-ahead in 2017 to two projects it hopes will dramatically improve the flow of traffic in congested areas.

The long-delayed Vye Road project will make traffic flow smoother near the Huntingdon border crossing. And improvements to Fraser Highway are hoped to alleviate congestion on that perennially clogged artery.

4. Salton bridge: This spring, council approved the construction of a cycling and pedestrian overpass across Highway 1.

The bridge will provide a safe link between UFV and surrounding neighbourhoods and central Abbotsford.

With the city working on a new Transportation Master Plan and elections next fall, the focus for future bike improvements seems likely to move to the city centre.

So far many of Abbotsford’s bike lane improvements have taken place on the city’s periphery.

Significant improvements to corridors in denser areas will be key to efforts to get more people walking and biking, but they’ll also cost more and – as changes in other cities have shown – potentially alienate drivers.

5. Tax troubles: Since the last election, taxes have increased no more and no less than inflation.

However, many residents have faced large tax hikes anyway as the cost of their homes has risen faster than the city average.

It’s a problem that is rooted in variabilities in the housing market and BC Assessment’s valuations, but council has nevertheless been relatively inundated with complaints.

With another significant assessment bump coming in the new year – and likely to hit many properties that saw little rise last year – we’ll see if the public again points the finger at the politicians.

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