BigBoxing in Salmon Arm: Round one

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Community's fight against sprawl development intensifies

Part one of a two-part story. Click here to read part two.

For two years, community activists in Salmon Arm led the fight against a gigantic Smart!Centres development planned for an environmentally sensitive floodplain. In October 2008, after five nights of emotional public hearings at which hundreds of community members spoke passionately against the plan, the council voted down the development by the narrowest of margins.

With a three-three tie vote, it was a TKO.

A year later, the developer is back, slicker and meaner, and the community is gearing up for another bitter fight. Will sprawl development or smart development emerge triumphant this round?

Round One: "You're just like any other town"

The battle began in earnest in early 2006 when a small group of Salmon Arm community members concerned about proposed big box developments in the community formed the Committee for a Strong and Sustainable Salmon Arm (CASSSA). Not long after, CASSSA learned that Smart!Centres, the largest shopping centre developer in Canada, was negotiating to buy a parcel of grazing land at the mouth of the Salmon River three kilometres west of the small B.C. city at the mouth of the Salmon River. Investigation revealed that the property had been removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve in 2005 at the request of the city council after an earlier attempt in 2004 had failed. The exclusion took place with little publicity and no input from a local farmers' organization mandated to review agricultural land removals.

Concerned about the social, economic and environmental threats the development posed, a CASSSA delegation met with the developer's representative. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Smart!Centres project director commented, "You're wasting your time opposing this. The entire council is behind it. You're just like any other town. Ten per cent will oppose the development. Sixty per cent will support it, and the rest won't care. We're so sure we will get this through that we're buying the land." And they did, for a reported $15 million, even though the shopping centre could only be built with an amendment to the Official Community Plan and rezoning, both of which required the support of a majority of council members.

With the twin goals of halting the shopping centre and promoting a more positive and sustainable development model, CASSSA worked for the next 24 months to build a broad-based membership (over 150 paid members and 800 on the mailing list in a city of 16,000). The fledgling organization rented a downtown office and published and distributed 12,000 copies of its own newspaper, Outside the Box. CASSSA started a letter writing campaign to the local papers, produced regular pamphlets distributed through the post offices to counter SmartCentres' propaganda, organized two major rallies, established media contacts, made public presentations and systematically lobbied councilors.

One argument against the development, proposed for a floodplain rich in bird and wildlife habitat and adjacent to an officially designated "endangered river," was its potentially devastating environmental impact. To broaden public understanding of these issues, CASSSA joined with local environmental and naturalists groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Shuswap Environmental Action Society and the Shuswap Naturalists Club. Working together, these groups compellingly demonstrated how the development, which would require the dumping of tens of thousands of truck loads of fill on sensitive wetland, posed serious threats to the lake, river, flood plain, fish populations, bird and wildlife habitat.

Another major concern was the impact the shopping centre would have on the downtown core. The proposed 370,000 square feet of commercial space was almost equal in size to the entire downtown and would clearly operate at the expense of downtown merchants. Moreover, the development was in direct contravention of Salmon Arm's Official Community Plan which committed the city to "[ensuring that] the Town Centre is to continue to be recognized as the principle commercial, business, cultural and administrative centre," to "Maintain a vibrant, compact and easily accessible downtown with a small town feel," and to "discourage urban sprawl."

For its advocacy activities, CASSSA relied entirely on funds raised through dances, auctions, donations, memberships and support from local businesses. Working with Smart Growth BC, they also received a grant from the Real Estate Board of British Columbia for a Smart Growth initiative, which was reluctantly endorsed by the city.

As the Smart!Centres proposal moved forward, CASSSA and its allies formed the Coalition for Responsible Development. The coalition began to mobilize its supporters to attend and present at the public hearings, scheduled for late October 2008. Mobilization involved a strategic plan to identify key organizers in about 20 sectors, including church, medical, education, downtown merchants, developers, arts, new residents, seniors and unions. A turnout coordinator oversaw the campaign, and a phone blitz ensured that every person on the combined coalition membership lists was contacted by phone and e-mail.

The hearings went on for five nights. Scheduled for a hotel ballroom accommodating 500 people, on the first night the crowd, most wearing green and yellow buttons reading "Save our Wetlands; Say No to Bad Development," overflowed into the halls. Though presenters were allowed only seven minutes each, by the end of the first night less than a third of those who had signed up had spoken, almost all of them speaking against the development. The second night followed a similar pattern, but as the council had only booked the room for three evenings, on the third night they continued hearings until 2 a.m. At least 200 people remained to the end.

The council vote finally came at 10 p.m. on Friday. Each council member gave long explanations of their vote. After more than an hour of tension, the final councilor voted and the result was a tie. The motion failed.

When the last vote was cast, the hall erupted in cheers, laughter and tears. The Smart!Centres team, all dressed in black coats and white shirts, possibly in solidarity with their mascots, a family of penguins, stalked out of the hall. Against all odds, a ragtag group of community members had grown into a formidable movement and emerged triumphant. For a while, at least, it seemed that Rocky had not only put up a good fight, but had actually won the bout.

Don Sawyer is an educator, writer and community activist living in Salmon Arm, B.C.

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