The biggest decision facing Abbotsford’s next council

The fate of a chunk of Sumas Mountain prized by bikers, hikers, conservationists, and developers will rest with Abbotsford’s next council.

By Tyler Olsen | October 5, 2022 |5:00 am

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The fate of a large chunk of Sumas Mountain* will be left to Abbotsford’s next council.

The city’s controversial McKee Neighbourhood Plan aims to lay out where thousands of new homes will be built in eastern Abbotsford. The plan says the new neigbourhoods will embrace the area’s legendary trail system. But a coalition of recreational and conservation groups believe it should be sent back for revisions, saying it doesn’t do enough to protect the natural and recreational assets it claims to embrace. (Click here to read our story from May about the plan and concerns it may impact local trails.)

A public hearing had been scheduled for July 25. But at the last minute, the hearing was cancelled. The City of Abbotsford said a “potential issue” had prompted legal advice and led to the deferral of the meeting.

Now, it has been confirmed that no decision will be made until after the next council is elected—and a new mayor sworn in.

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Conflict concerns stalled plan

At a council meeting in late September, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun confirmed that the fate of the McKee Neighbourhood Plan would be decided after October’s election—and his own retirement.

Braun said at the council meeting that the delay of the plan was due, in part, to his personal connections with one of the major landowners. He said that while preparing for the hearing, he (or the city) realized that a major chunk of land in the area is co-owned by an acquaintance.

That acquaintance co-owns a piece of the Vicarro Ranch properties on either side of Whatcom Road and is also part owner, with Braun, of a ranch in the Interior. Braun has previously recused himself from voting on issues involving his ranch co-owners to avoid any perceived conflict of interest. (This story previously incorrectly identified the Vicarro investor in question as Ron Funk. Funk, though has sold his share in the ranch, and the investor is another individual.)

Braun said he has since been told that doing so isn’t necessary. Still, he said he will continue to do so anyways, particularly in light of a warning about a potential legal challenge by one prominent opponent to the plan.

With that in mind, with Braun recused himself as council voted in late September to rescind all previous readings of the plan. Council will now have to start the approval process all over again—but that won’t begin until after the next council is sworn in in November.

At the September council meeting, Braun said there had been “indications from proponents of the Abbotsford Tech District development that the City would face legal challenges to any perceived procedural unfairness.”

The Abbotsford Tech District is the new version of a proposed massive development called We Town that council rejected in 2019. The development was proposed for a portion of the land included in the McKee Neighbourhood Plan. Council’s rejection was one of the single most significant decisions that local politicians made during the last four years, and one of the only major issues on which there was a significant split at the council table.

The failed We Town proposal envisioned futuristic highrises on the slopes of Sumas Mountain.
The failed We Town proposal envisioned futuristic highrises on the slopes of Sumas Mountain.

The We Town plan would have seen the construction of futuristic high-rises built near the Auguston subdivision by Ledgeview Golf Course. The buildings were envisioned to house more than 10,000 people and contain millions of square feet of tech-oriented office space. The project was pitched by the developers of Auguston.

But by seeking to create what would be essentially a second city centre, the We Town plan directly conflicted with Abbotsford’s Official Community Plan. It also left unanswered questions about how the development would be integrated into the rest of Abbotsford, how it would impact traffic and schools, and what would happen if its grand ambitions couldn’t be fully realized.

The idea was rebooted in 2020 as the Abbotsford Tech District. Details have yet to be released, but the concept still hopes to create office space for nearly 20,000 tech workers and homes for many of them.

Those plans also conflict with the city’s current vision for the area, which envisions dramatically lower levels of density for the properties in question—even if that density is still higher than some groups would like to see.

McKee Peak’s future

The coming council election will now decide the future of McKee Peak.

The recreation and conservation groups standing against the neighbourhood plan have said they aren’t fundamentally opposed to the whole concept. Rather, they have indicated that they would generally accept the plan if it provided more room for nature and for the trails the plan supposedly embraces.

Those groups rallied their members during the summer, and they inundated the city with comments and concerns. The public hearing was likely to be among the largest in the last four years.

Although the plan was headed for what appeared to be a contentious public hearing, preliminary discussion in the council chambers was supportive. Council almost unanimously applauded the plan as proposed and suggested that it did enough to protect trail corridors and the area’s natural beauty. Seven of those eight councillors are running again—six for council seats and Coun. Ross Seimens for the mayor’s seat. New candidates have/haven’t made their opinions for/against the plan generally known, though we did ask all candidates how willing they were to deviate from their city’s official community plan.

Even if every incumbent is voted back in, the new council will have at least two fresh voices, with Braun’s retirement and Coun. Brenda Falk’s departure.

As for the Abbotsford Tech District concept, it could also be revived if the McKee Neighbourhood Plan is shelved and a new council deems it worth pursuing.

The two departing council members—Braun and Falk—both voted to leave We Town out of the city’s McKee Neighbourhood Plan, essentially dooming the concept. One pro-We Town councillor is also gone, with Bruce Banman having been elected as an MLA in 2020. He was replaced by Dave Sidhu during a by-election.

With Braun at the head of the table, council almost always approved plans presented to them at the council table.

One of the lingering questions will be whether a new mayor and new council are more willing to send staff back to the drawing board.

The McKee concept is different from many recently approved neighbourhood plans. Unlike most other parts of Abbotsford’s years-long planning process, it promotes a degree of sprawl that can be seen at odds with parts of the broader OCP. (The OCP did sketch out plans for the creation of “new neighbourhoods” in the McKee area, but was otherwise focused on building a denser community.)

A defeat of the plan may also not be its death knell: its main focus could still be met even if council scaled back the breadth of development to appease hikers, bikers, and conservationists.

On the other hand, a new council wanting to revisit the Abbotsford Tech District proposal could tear up the plan completely.

The We Town plans and subsequent tech district concept would move Abbotsford’s centre of balance and its relationship with Sumas Mountain. In doing so, it would present a dramatically different vision of a city than the one laid out by planners six years ago.

Leaning into that We Town proposal would not only signal that the city’s new council doesn’t feel obliged to follow the 2016 OCP, it would also require a dramatically different vision for Abbotsford as a whole.

The next council could choose to stick the course, bend on McKee, or start over entirely. The future is up to them. And voters.


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*Before you yell at us: we asked a UFV geography professor if McKee Peak is part of Sumas Mountain. He said it was, though the peak has some unique geographic features of its own. Return to top of story.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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