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Building Bylaw still brings heat to PRRD

Rural residents walk out of tense meeting, even though committee decides in their favour

About a half-hour into Wednesday's special meeting at the Peace River Regional District to discuss the controversial Building Bylaw 1996 2011, a group of about a dozen rural residents who had gathered in the gallery collectively stood up and stormed out in protest.

Several men loudly declared the discussion of the long-debated bylaw change "a joke," jabbing their fingers at elected representatives. It was the latest bit of acrimony in the district's struggle to figure out how to regulate construction in the region's hinterlands.

The PRRD's rural directors held the meeting Wednesday to hammer out a stance on the building bylaw, which took effect last year, then rescinded last fall in the midst of a torrent of criticism from affected landowners, before being readopted in a limited form a few weeks later.

The committee eventually decided, after the residents walked out, to recommend against a new bylaw, the general consensus being that the status quo of the original 1990s-era bylaw was good enough.

Whether that decision will fly with the board's urban representatives, though, remains to be seen.

"[The bylaw] is the elephant in the room at every board meeting we have," said Area C Director Arthur Hadland, who represents the rural area around Fort St. John. "I think the whole of the board just feels that this is something that we're just spinning our wheels on."

A long debate

For several years, the PRRD has been mulling such an update to its rural building bylaw. Proponents of an updated bylaw argue that new rules are necessary to ensure development is safe, properly monitored and appropriate for the area.

One key issue is to make sure structures on rural properties - which are sometimes built without permits - are up to fire codes. Staff have also warned the regional board that it is taking on legal liability by not more closely regulating construction.

Proponents of an updated bylaw say it would also better monitor population growth, which is tied to government funding for schools, healthcare and infrastructure.

But some rural residents have deemed the push to regulate construction on lands that have to this point rarely been subject to government interference a "money and a power grab."

Since a new bylaw was first discussed several years ago, the region has held dozens of public meetings, including more than 20 rural outreach sessions that often became little more than shouting matches at PRRD representatives. Police have been called in to control unruly crowds, and the district's former head administrator offered to resign.

The PRRD put a stricter bylaw into effect last year, but later rescinded it after public pressure. Now, even some of the district's directors said they are hazy on where the law currently stands.

Back and forth

The key issues are where a new building bylaw would apply, and what it would regulate.

For one, the proposed building bylaw would greatly expand the area under the region's authority. Under the existing bylaw, rural residents seeking to build on their property require permits if they live along Highway 97 starting southwest of Chetwynd, around Moberly Lake, in areas outside Dawson Creek, along the Alaska Highway, along the north bank of the Peace River and north of Fort St. John.

Bruce Simard, the regional district's manager of development services, said that the current law, despite covering a much smaller area of land, comprises close to 80 per cent of all building permits issued in the region. The proposed law would set new standards for the remainder of inhabited land - mainly agricultural areas, and potential industrial projects like work camps.

The rescinded bylaw would also have required all landowners in the region to apply for a development permit for all projects totaling more than $2,500. That has been a tough pill to swallow for rural residents.

"I think it's important we respect why people moved and why they live [in rural areas]," director Jerrilyn Schembri said at the meeting. "If they moved there because they want fewer rules and less government interference, we need to respect that."

That sentiment didn't exactly follow for Tracey Lorenson, the consultant brought in to mediate Wednesday's meeting.

"I respect individual autonomy, but we're not in the Wild West anymore," she said.

However, Hadland argued that the PRRD board, which has eight urban and four rural directors, was trying to impose an urban solution on rural areas.

"In an urban community, there is a need to maintain standards when you're shoulder to shoulder with your neighbours," said Hadland.

"The rural people have said very clearly that they're not interested," he added. "We recognize that the people got it right, and we have returned to status quo."

Hadland said it was fine by him if keeping the original bylaw in place meant opening the board up to legal liability.

"We all [accept risk] when we go out the door every morning," he said. "To bring that up just plays into the hand of the insurance companies and the legal fraternity. We've got to go back to the responsibility of the individual."