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Surrey votes against Metro Vancouver regional growth plan

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum says Metro Vancouver's long-term growth plan falls short for needs in Surrey and strips the city of its autonomy.

Metro Vancouver's latest regional growth strategy will be going to a public hearing next month despite opposition from Surrey, the region's largest and fastest growing city.

At the March 25 Metro Vancouver regional board meeting, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and four councillors aligned with his majority slate at Surrey City Hall voted against sending the proposed Metro 2050 Regional Growth Strategy to a public hearing.

“At this stage I’m not going to support the Metro 2050 regional plan," said McCallum.

It’s a decision that perplexed many board directors, who represent 23 member jurisdictions that share services such as parks, waste disposal, sewers, water and, to a lesser degree, transportation corridors and housing.

At issue is the autonomy of cities and to what extent they must fall in line with regional objectives, from transportation planning, residential, industrial and commercial development and other broader interconnected goals, including community health and lowering carbon emissions.

“I’m not a big fan of directors making decisions of other cities’ zoning bylaws. It’s just a ground feeling. I’ve always felt that’s up to the residents of each city through their public hearings and for their councils to deal with,” said McCallum before his slate voted.

“This plan isn’t reflective of that growth south of the Fraser,” said McCallum.

A quick rebuke came from neighbouring Township of Langley councillor Kim Richter.

“I disagree with director McCallum. If local planning decisions are going to impact neighbours then neighbours have a right to have input on that decision and have that input listened to,” said Richter, who also opposed the plan, but for other reasons.

The Metro Vancouver public hearing is set for April 20. 

Following the regional public hearing, each member jurisdiction will then be required to hold their own public hearing. If all members approve the plan, it can be approved by the Metro board by July. However, members can oppose the plan and file for arbitration on matters they object to.

McCallum suggested the plan will likely go to an arbitration process for Surrey; however, he said he was hopeful Surrey would eventually endorse the plan so long as there were an opt-out clause.

“There is a clause we can work on so you can have Surrey support it, but certain parts would not apply to Surrey,” explained McCallum.

Should a member jurisdiction oppose the strategy, a dispute resolution process would proceed with a third party mediator approved by the region and city. This process would be overseen by the provincial government, Metro Vancouver staff explained to the board. In the end, every member needs to support the plan, however that may look, as required under the province-mandated Local Government Act.

What remains unclear is how the plan would proceed and function to achieve its stated goals with Surrey having an opt-out clause for whatever it deems not in its own interest.

“It would be extremely helpful to hear what Surrey objects to. I’m kind of surprised after all that this board has been through with regards to Surrey that there are still outstanding concerns. So, it would be helpful to hear what that concern is,” said Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov.

Surrey councillor Laurie Guerra, who sits on the Metro Vancouver planning committee told Glacier Media Thursday that keeping local control of land use decisions was the Surrey directors' primary concern. She said the roadblocks Surrey recently faced from the board in developing an industrial park in South Surrey is something she does not want repeated.

The 400-acre Campbell Heights development can now proceed after being narrowly approved by directors, some who voted for more city autonomy and others who supported more direct regional governance.

There is precedence for Metro Vancouver member jurisdictions opposing regional growth strategies. For example, Campbell Heights itself was only allowed to proceed to a vote because Surrey fought to keep it as a special study area (and outside the mandated urban containment boundary) in Metro 2040, the current plan’s predecessor. Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart noted his city also went to arbitration on Metro 2040.

Richmond councillor Harold Steves said he was “shocked” at Surrey opting out of Metro 2050.

“It’s about time we acted like a regional government, not a collection of feuding cities demanding our own way,” he said.

The vote to move forward to an April 20 public hearing was initially questioned by Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who pondered if the proposed plan needed to first incorporate Surrey’s objections.

But Metro staff explained time was of the essence; had it not been approved for an April 20 public hearing then a further delay would mean the process would start anew next year and under a different board of directors following the October municipal election, staff said.

Although McCallum did not cite any specific reason for not adopting Metro 2050, a prior chief concern of his, aside from decision-making autonomy, has been rapid transit infrastructure. McCallum opposed a regional plan for a light rail loop in Surrey; when he was re-elected mayor in 2018, he turfed city hall support for it and has since lobbied senior governments to build a SkyTrain line to the City of Langley.

The Metro 2050 plan calls for growth in urban centres and along rapid transit corridors; however, unlike Metro 2040, there is no explicit call to further expand transit lines in Surrey.

This was pointed out by Vancouver Coastal Health in its presentation to the board.

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, deputy medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, also emphasized the need for more transit to connect communities and lower air pollution.

But Lysyshyn said the language of the plan is such that nothing is required in certain instances; rather, goals remain aspirational or something to be “considered,” he said.

Climate policy expert Alex Boston, who has observed the progression of Metro 2050, said it is “ironic” Surrey council members are objecting to the plan while Surrey’s own official community plan and Metro 2050 align with one another. It is the actual implementation of policies that are disjointed, said Boston, executive director of Renewable Cities, a renewable energy think-tank supported by the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver.

Boston said Surrey has “no meaningful policy for gentle intensification in single-family zones” and subsidized housing is not being built along transit lines.

There is also no requirement in Metro 2050 and community plans to have policies in place that support provincial priorities. This is being borne out right now, Boston noted, as Minister of Housing David Eby seeks remedies to bypass city zoning regulations to speed up construction of new homes.