The debate over development in Echo Heights is again heating up.

The debate over development in Echo Heights is again heating up.

Echo Heights debate heating up

The future of Echo Heights depends on who you ask.

For North Cowichan officials, it’s the site of a future park and residential development that will bring in millions of dollars for the municipality.

For the Chemainus Residents Association, the only acceptable option is 100 per cent parkland.

Now the debate about the fate of Echo Heights — which began in earnest about five years ago — is heating up again and will likely be resolved in the coming months.

Jump-starting the discussion is North Cowichan’s five-year capital project plan, which maps out the development of a 15-acre portion of Echo Heights over two phases in 2011 and 2014.

North Cowichan Mayor Tom Walker said the goal is to protect about 60 per cent of Echo Heights by designating it as parkland, and creating a stewardship committee to oversee it.

The remaining portion of the 54-acre property would be developed by the municipality, and its lots sold.

The municipality has projected development costs of $1.05 million for phase one, and $1.37 million for phase two, with projected revenues of $2.28 million and $3.7 million respectively.

But Walker stressed the majority of the land would be protected, which has never been proposed by North Cowichan before.

“We had an environmental study done some time ago and it identified the ecologically sensitive areas, and we want to protect those,” he said.

As it stands, the entire property is zoned for residential, which means North Cowichan does not have to seek public approval to develop it. Rezoning some of it as parkland, however, does require public consultation.

“I think it’s worth saving, and I’m fearful that if we don’t save the 60 per cent of it, some future council down the road might go ahead and develop it all,” Walker said. “It always has been and continues to be zoned residential, that’s no surprise, but for the first time, we’re firm in saying we want park for 60 per cent of it.”

But Bernie Jones, a member of the CRA, said 100 per cent of Echo Heights needs to be preserved.

“It’s the kind of thing where if an area you’re trying to conserve gets too small, it becomes pretty darn hard to save,” he said. “Council has within it the power to designate the whole thing (as parkland), so designating half of it, it’s a nice idea, but it just doesn’t go far enough.”

Jones said the Chemainus community is similarly displeased with the perceived warning it’s receiving from North Cowichan.

“We’re concerned about the effort to say to Chemainus, ‘If you want a community centre, a skate park, downtown revitalization, we need to sell off Echo Heights so we have the money for all that,’” Jones said.

“It’s sort of trying to divide and conquer the community, trying to get folks to turn against Echo Heights because they want a community centre. I don’t think it will work. I think people can see through that kind of argument,” he added.

“Chemainus has paid for things in other parts of North Cowichan and we expect the same kind of process here: improvements for Chemainus shouldn’t have to come out of only Chemainus taxpayers’ pockets.”

Walker, however, said there’s no threat in the municipality’s proposal.

“We’re not trying to build a house of cards here that is designed to collapse (without Echo Heights),” he said.

“This is a proposal: we tell the community what we’re thinking, seek their input, and then we modify.”

Walker said the municipality is balancing various community views, as well as environmental and financial studies, in its plans on Echo Heights.

The proposed plan will go before council sometime in the next month or so, he added. If it receives first reading there, public consultation begins, followed by a public hearing.