The fourth level

Can the Fraser Valley Regional District rally input from a public that may not know it exists?

By Tyler Olsen | September 28, 2021 |6:00 am

This story appeared in the September 28 edition of the Fraser Valley Current daily newsletter. To get access to every story we write as soon as they’re published, subscribe below.

Look at your tax bill. There, halfway down the list of people you send money to every year, are the words: “Fraser Valley Regional District.” If you own a $750,000 house in Abbotsford, you send that body about $80 every year. And even if you don’t own a home, a portion of your rent ends up in the hands of the FVRD.

But what, really, is the Fraser Valley Regional District?

Jason Lum has a pretty good idea. But he should—he’s the chair of the FVRD’s board after all. But if you ask him how many residents know what the FVRD does, he’s realistic: “Probably not many. And I don’t blame them.”

There’s a reason for that. You may have learned in school that Canada has three levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal. But that’s not entirely true. It also has regional governments, like the FVRD, which do a little bit of everything and are made up of a little bit of everyone. (A “little bit of everyone” includes politicians from Abbotsford, Mission, Chilliwack, Kent, Hope, and Harrison, as well as officials from the unincorporated rural areas for which the FVRD serves as the municipal hall.)

Relative anonymity isn’t always a bad thing, but it can make things more tricky when the FVRD wants to hear from the public—like this month as it solicits feedback on a grand new strategy for the region’s future.

As noted above, the FVRD acts as the “city hall” for those rural areas, providing utilities and laying out land use rules. But it also has a nebulous regional role that is more difficult to grasp, particularly when it comes to crafting a new regional growth strategy. That strategy will lay out the direction of growth for the region, suggesting where new development is likely to take place, and where incoming residents will live. It will also be based heavily on existing plans from local cities and towns, and boast ideas for the future, and inform discussions with the province and federal government.

But the strategy’s power, like that of the FVRD, depends on everyone being on the same page. Municipalities can deviate from it whenever they want, and the last growth strategy was full of verbs like “support,” “encourage,” “consider,” and “foster,” that hinted at more-powerful forces that influence how the region will change. Indeed, the strategy’s power (or lack thereof) depends mainly on municipal stakeholders agreeing on a general direction for their communities and pulling in the same direction. Like many of the FVRD’s undertakings, it will take its power largely from the unity of the district’s members and the shared idea that a regional government can do important things. But not just those politicians. It also requires the tacit acceptance of a public who may be only peripherally aware of the plan—or the entire FVRD—in the first place.

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A multitude of services

People use a multitude of FVRD services, even if they don’t realize it, Lum notes. The district manages animal control, various regional parks, mosquito control, and even a campground. It is the city hall for people in unincorporated areas like Cultus Lake, Lake Errock, Popkum, and the Chilliwack River Valley. And it takes a significant role in creating valley-wide strategies for things like improving the region’s air quality.

The FVRD has assumed these responsibilities because, over the years, politicians decided these work better when done on a regional scale. For something like animal control, Lum says, “with Abbotsford and Chilliwack and Mission, Kent and Agassiz joining together, it made sense to share those services and share that tax burden.”.

Similarly, it was the regional district that created the Fraser Valley Express bus between Hope and Langley. Soon, that bus will connect with SkyTrain. Today, almost all other transit operations are controlled by the Fraser Valley municipalities, in partnership with BC Transit. But Lum says the bus route is a good example of a service where a regional system may work better as the region grows, particularly as residents demand transit between communities. But with that comes a touch of wariness, given the size, scale, complexity, and other, shall we say, issues with Translink to the west.

“It’s trending that way,” Lum said about the FVRD’s involvement in transit planning and oversight. “We’re seeing more opportunity to regionalize, but I also have no interest in building a giant monster, like Translink, and neither do any of my colleagues around the board table. I think we want to be smart about how we are creating these services and do our homework to make sure the demand is there.”

Transit exists on one end of the spectrum of what the FVRD does; planning projects like the Regional Growth Strategy exist on the other. For transit, local politicians jointly decided something should be done, then told the FVRD to do that thing. The FVRD did the thing, and people had a bus to ride. The Regional Growth Strategy, on the other hand, is mandatory (the province requires it) but has at best an indirect impact on everyday citizens.

Despite being mandated by the province, the plan is not something cities are beholden to follow. That was made clear seven years ago at the culmination of a court battle between the Township of Langley and Metro Vancouver, the regional district for communities west of Abbotsford. Lum says that’s for the best, and consistent with how the FVRD should operate.

“My approach with the regional district is more carrot than stick,” he said. “How can we work together where it makes sense? And if it doesn’t make sense, then we won’t.”

And so, the the grandest plan for the Fraser Valley’s future will be less a road map, and more a compass pointing broadly to some distant place over the horizon. All that’s needed to get there is a unified region. That and all the powers of those three other levels of government.

Sept. 30 is the deadline to provide input into the Regional Growth Strategy.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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