Landowners in some Metro Vancouver municipalities complain that expert consultants with many years in the industry, called qualified environmental professionals (QEPs), are being overruled by city hall staff on the issue of wetlands. In many cases this significantly reduced the value of the land. Keep in mind that QEPs cannot make arbitrary decisions. They are required to conduct a science-based assessment of proposed activities, or risk losing their professional designation.
Wetlands are distinct ecosystems that are permanently or seasonally flooded by water long enough to develop anaerobic (i.e. oxygen-free) conditions in the upper part of underlying “hydric” soils. While anyone can identify obvious wetlands, such as marshes and bogs, only a QEP is entitled to interpret field indicators and argue whether an area of land is or is not wetland. The key word is “argue”, and that’s why interpretive problems arise.
The regulatory and policy underpinnings for wetland protection are easily subject to interpretation. At the B.C. provincial level, they principally arise from the Water Sustainability Act and the Riparian Areas Protection Act; but as many as 38 provincial and federal pieces of legislation mandate wetland protection, often with conflicting definitions, objectives and best management practices. Local governments are left trying to align development applications with senior legislative requirements through their available tools including official community plans, bylaws and project- specific planning.
When municipal environmental managers are left to review development permit applications, it is understandable how they could be drawn to overly conservative application and end up protecting features of limited environmental value.
I queried two QEPs from different firms about reports of regulatory overindulgence. Both had the same opinions, and neither was willing to have their name appear in print. Nor can I print what they said, except to say that developers and landowners were not venting without reason. At least one municipal wetlands “expert” was indeed rejecting well-substantiated science-based submissions.
Why all the municipal furor? Wetlands have long been stigmatized as undesirable areas, unsuitable for development and useful only once they were filled in and made useful. As a result, many were destroyed. From a save-the-environment perspective, more than half of the original wetlands in the Lower Mainland have been lost to human development.
Few developers or even landowners would complain if they were prevented from draining and developing an obvious wetland, like a swamp. But what about uneven land surfaces where portions are covered with water for only a few weeks of the year, not uncommon on the west coast of rainy B.C. Are these wetlands?
The pendulum appears to have swung from one extreme – mass wetland destruction – to the other: preservation of all land that can be wetted. It is easy to understand why developers feel slighted when a city regulator rejects an environmental expert’s opinion, seemingly out of hand.
The solution? Typically, governmental authorities resort to writing more regulations. In the contaminated-sites field there are now more than 10,000 pages of legislation, regulation, protocol and policy. Sometimes this helps, but often it just shifts the argument from one area of dispute to another further down the regulatory chain. One regulator nearing retirement from the land remediation unit of the Ministry of Environment told me that the new generation of municipal hires has lost sight of the intent of regulations that they now enforce. They were not around when those regulations were drafted and are fearful of overlooking an intended restriction.
The result, in too many cases, is overzealous municipal enforcement that reduces the value of someone’s land.
Harm Gross is a biologist, a contaminated site specialist and president of Next Environmental, Burnaby. Visit nextenvironmental.com