Can one of Canada’s best trail networks survive development?

Abbotsford’s McKee Peak has some of the country’s best hiking and biking trails. A new city plan says it will embrace and preserve those trails, but users aren’t convinced.

By Tyler Olsen | May 27, 2022 |5:00 am

This is the third story in a series on the region’s mid-valley mountains and efforts to preserve their natural assets in a fast-growing region.

Part 2: Little Mountain | Part 2: Hillkeep Park


For Yoshia Burton, it’s the dirt that makes McKee Peak world class.

There are lots of beloved mountain biking trails around North America: heavily used tracks in Colorado, Whistler, and beyond that grace magazine covers, glossy advertisements, and tourism brochures. Burton says the trails on McKee Peak, above Whatcom Road in Abbotsford, are better. They are more accessible and more fun, thanks to the moldable and varied terrain they’re built on and their close proximity to the thousands that use them.

Used by trail runners, hikers, joggers, and many others, and with ubiquitous cell service providing a sense of safety, Burton calls McKee Peak trails Abbotsford’s most-used recreational facility. And this weekend weekend, Run For Water will hold its trail run nearby, on Sumas Mountain.

There’s just one drawback: the trails are all built on private land, and developers are chomping at the bit to build tens of thousands of homes on and around them.

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The plan

Six years ago, the City of Abbotsford adopted a new plan to guide its development over the next 20 years. Plan200k, named for the project’s population target, envisioned a denser, more walkable, and less car-dependent city.

Six years later, the general path is becoming a reality, with the bulk of new homes being built in the centre of town near existing amenities and close to bus lines.

But the plan had one other aspect that was only rarely spoken of at the time: a huge swath of land on the city’s eastern edge was allotted to “new neighbourhoods.” The 2016 OCP declared that a future planning project would lay out how those were developed. That project would lay out where, and how, development might proceed over the coming years.

Now, the McKee Peak plan is here.

The plan attempts to lay out the future of a large block of land between Auguston subdivision in the north and the cliffs above the Whatcom Road area in the south.

Background research for the plan started two years ago, with the first phase of consultations happening last year. A concept plan was created over the winter, with a full draft released earlier this month, giving the public and stakeholders a final chance to weigh in. That window closes May 30 at 9am.

The core of the project is a land use plan that will lay out what type of buildings will be permitted in what places. The plan foresees a neighbourhood with between 14,400, and 23,400 people. It lays out locations for future schools, a “McKee Village” commercial area, and transit corridors.

Abbotsford's McKee Peak plan lays out how the area will be developed over the coming years, and where trails may fit in that equation. 🗺 City of Abbotsford
Abbotsford’s McKee Peak plan lays out how the area will be developed over the coming years, and where trails may fit in that equation. 🗺 City of Abbotsford

It may seem that such a grand development plan would be at odds with the preservation of a recreational treasure. But the city thinks the two can co-exist.

The McKee Peak plan is based on a vision statement that embraces them from the start:

“The McKee neighbourhood is the outdoor adventure hub in Abbotsford, where a mindful balance unifies the diverse interests in this land,” the statement reads. “Neighbourhoods are seamlessly integrated into the mountain, which continues to be a place of deep cultural and spiritual significance to local First Nations. Trails meander between forests and streams, protecting the environment and offering ways to connect with the land and enjoy the vast outdoor recreation opportunities.”

But if that’s the goal, the people who build, maintain, and ride the trails at the core of that “outdoor adventure hub” say the plan might be setting itself up for failure.

The plan lays out trail corridors that connect the entire neighbourhood, and around which homes are built. But Burton, who is the president of Abbotsford Trail Development Society and the vice-president of Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association, said those corridors are too narrow and risk being disconnected as building continues over the coming decades.

“It’s a wild plan to be honest,” Burton said.

He stressed that he and his colleagues are not trying to create conflict, and understand that development will happen. But he warned that failure to protect one of Abbotsford’s prime natural assets would have consequences for everyone.

“Nobody’s suggesting this development stops. I mean, if I had $300 million I would buy it and I would turn it into a park,” he said. “But what we are suggesting is that there needs to be even further allowances for natural green space, and for the existing trail network.”

Burton said that developers recognize the value of the trails: a house that backs onto a world-class trail can be sold for more than one surrounded on all sides by other homes. But he said a better balance is needed to actually preserve that asset.

“All the developers are advertising it as this trail living and adjacent to nature and all of these things, but then, at the same time, also pushing for as much development that they can possibly do.”

He and others worry that the narrow corridors allotted for the trails aren’t always practical, could be broken in the future, and will result in a loss of much of what makes the area so special.

Trail runner Paul Enns, who helps organize Run For Water’s trail race, which will be held on Sumas Mountain this weekend, said the plan “is a start,” but that it mimics previous hillside developments.

“In its current form, the plan seems more like an extension of the Highlands—just another average subdivision for the wealthier among us—rather than a visionary preservation of truly wild corridors and viewpoints that put the mental and physical well-being of the general public at the forefront,” Enns wrote to the city.

Both Burton and Enns want a more ambitious plan. They also worry about areas designated as “geotechnical risk areas,” that aren’t protected as open space. Those areas would sever many of the outlined corridors, though Burton said trail groups have been told that building is unlikely because of the steep slopes involved.

Building in such areas is extremely expensive. But Burton worries that the sky-high price of land in the region will nevertheless eventually make those areas economically profitable to develop. He says if the trails do form a core part of the area, they need to be prioritized more.

“They are making some allowances, don’t get me wrong, and we don’t want to say the city’s not doing anything… we just don’t think it goes far enough,”” he said. “There needs to be some more done to preserve this because we only get one shot.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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