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New Workshop Helps Municipalities Respond to Proposals

When a municipality is affected by a proposal for development, what should they do next?

Often, local governments can feel powerless in the face of a proposed development, or at best, unsure about how to proceed confidently.

Today municipalities across the province and particularly in the north, are facing a multitude of proposed developments from dams to mines to pipelines. With each potential new development, the need to evaluate its potential impact and educate residents is crucial. But there is no guidebook for municipalities to follow, and often government is left feeling powerless.

Rhonda Maskiewich and Pam Robertson
Rhonda Maskiewich, Environmental Planner and Biologist and Pam Robertson, Communications Specialist
Enter Pam Robertson and Rhonda Maskiewich of Urban Systems, who recently co-led a workshop with Dianne Hunter, the City Manager for Fort St. John, to help communities ready themselves to respond to development proposals.

“When a big initiative is on the horizon for a community, it’s important to understand how it will impact people and to give them a voice. I think it’s so important people be part of the decisions that affect them,” says Pam, who has been with Urban Systems since 2007.

“We held this workshop because we wanted to help local governments understand that they are not powerless in the environmental assessment process. Rather than recede into the background as just one of many stakeholders, in reality, local governments can take a powerful lead role.”

The Rules of Engagement

One of the goals of the workshop was to help build strategies around public engagement and work through a real-life example. A key message was that rather than be “for” or “against” developments, municipalities can take a more neutral, educational approach.

“We talked a lot about not taking a position at the outset, but instead to seek to understand from every perspective – including the proponent’s.” explains Rhonda, an Environmental Planner and Biologist who has been doing Environmental Assessments at Urban Systems for the past 12 years.

“Really it’s about engaging people—from those who bring the project to town to the residents, and it’s about representing the community’s interests. We talked about looking at impacts and saying ‘okay, if this project is approved, here’s what needs to happen for it to benefit our community.’”

Learning from Fort St. John

Dianne Hunter - City Manager, Fort St. John
Dianne Hunter – City Manager, Fort St. John
The workshop was co-developed and facilitated with Dianne Hunter, the City Manager for Fort St. John. The City of Fort St. John is a large, long term client of Urban Systems who went through the very process described in the workshop with the proposal of the Site C Clean Energy Project, a third dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River.

“It was great to have Dianne there to walk through how Fort St. John handled the Site C proposal,” says Rhonda.

“She had a lot of practical tips and ‘this is what we did’ types of examples. In the case of this project, we worked with the city to help them develop a position paper and engage the community. They never took a position but instead presented the community’s interests. I think what the city of Fort St. John did here was phenomenal, and a great example of how to leave your community better off.”

Dianne says that in co-presenting the workshop she found value in connecting with other CAOs from BC and Alberta and hearing about their experiences related to large project development, and the strategies they employed.

“I came away with a better appreciation that this is new territory for many of us and that sharing ideas and best practices will assist us in assisting our Councils in ensuring community impacts are taken into consideration by developers of large projects. I look forward to many more of these types of exchanges.”

At the end of the day, participants talked about how valuable the information was, and how important it could be for communities struggling with major development or other new initatives to have access to this type of thinking. Already there have been requests from other communities to have the workshop specially re-delivered for them.

Corien Becker - CAO, District of Squamish
Corien Becker – CAO, District of Squamish
Corien Becker, CAO of the District of Squamish, was a participant in the session. She says that the workshop was inspiring, and a step in the right direction when it comes to getting all stakeholders to step away from conflict and work together.

“I think that this information is very important for municipalities to have and to be thinking about, because it’s an animal most people don’t have experience with. With some proposals, especially controversial ones, municipalities aren’t equipped to deal with the process. They don’t have those tools in their toolkit or even know what they can and can’t ask.”

Corrine says learning from the Fort St. John story was illuminating.

“Rather than get wrapped up in a debate around the Environmental Assessment process, they let it run its course. They were able to engage directly with the developer and with the community and through socio economic studies, uncover information that would benefit the community. It showed you can be a little guy, and still make a difference—I think this story needs to be shared, and this kind of information is hugely valuable.”

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