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B.C. First Nation accuses city of 'bad faith' negotiation, habitat destruction as it moves to develop riverfront

The Katzie First Nation is accusing the City of Maple Ridge of 'bad faith' negotiations on a controversial riverfront development.

The Katzie First Nation is accusing the City of Maple Ridge of “bad faith” negotiations after the council allegedly moved to proceed with a controversial riverfront development without consulting the nation.

In a letter to city council, Chief Grace George and three Katzie councillors say they were not meaningfully consulted on the development of 26 single-family home lots along the shores of the Alouette River.

The Katzie Nation joins a local environmental group and several residents in opposing the 20-acre project, with many worried it will lead to a wave of development along the river’s edge, putting both people and fish at risk.   

“Our salmon are our family, and they are in a state of crisis and on the edge of extinction,” wrote Katzie’s chief and council in the lead up to a June 15 public hearing on the project.

The First Nation said it has been involved in ongoing conversations with BC Hydro and the province to release more water from the Alouette Dam — or even remove it entirely — to give salmon populations a chance to recover two-thirds of their historic habitat cut off in the 1920s with the construction of the dam. Chief and council warn the city not to rely on the dam to mitigate future flooding.

The letter, dated May 10 but only recently released as part of a June 15 council agenda package, says the city’s plan to consider final approval of the project flies in the face of the nation’s title rights.

They accuse the city of pushing ahead the project at the municipal level in order to “get us out of the way.”

In a statement Katzie Nation shared with Glacier Media, chief and council said it has sent a letter to the B.C. and federal government Crown regulators formally notifying them of "very significant concerns" over the development. The City of Maple Ridge, they wrote, wasn't living up to its legal requirements for consultation and engagement with the First Nation. 

The City of Maple Ridge has not responded to Glacier Media's multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment. However, at a public hearing earlier this week, Maple Ridge's director of planning, Chuck Goddard, laid out the city's position on consultation.

Goddard said the city posted the proposed amendments on the municipal website and held three information meetings. 

“On March 19, 2019, council decided it unnecessary to provide any further opportunities for early and ongoing consultation except by way of holding a public hearing for the bylaw,” he said at the start of the public hearing.

“This is the normal development process we go through on each and every application city and staff deal with.”

GROUNDSWELL OF OPPOSITION

The development proposal has triggered widespread pushback from a local environmental organization, a provincewide outdoor group and dozens of local residents dating back to 2019.

Of the 67 pieces of correspondence sent to the city, one was in favour of the development at this week's meeting.

Hugh Burke, headmaster at the private Meadowridge School, was among the few people to support the development since it was proposed, writing to council that he hoped it would “bring more professional families to our city physicians, investors, people who work in high tech, and others who might help build our community.”

Most who have spoken up slammed the plan. 

In the past, Gavin Roache wrote council that “If we are foolish enough to build on the floodplain, that's on us, and us alone.”

Some expressed concern over a loss in biodiversity.

“We have witnessed bears feast on chum, along with the ducks, eagles, herons, seagulls, raccoons, coyotes and the many insects and fungi that benefit from the remains that animals drag up into the forest,” said local environmental educator Alexandra Cholewa.

“If we end up losing the salmon from overdevelopment, we will end up losing so much more.” 

Longtime resident and former mayor Ernie Daykin spoke of the many watercourses and green spaces he played in as a kid, and how they have disappeared as they were filled in or culverted with little or no regard to the environment.

His worry: that his grandkids “look back on with sadness the way I look back on some of the things that happened in the '50s and '60s.”

A study commissioned by the city, however, found there would be “a net gain of riparian area” if the project went ahead. The city has suggested planting native plants and several hundred trees, building a shoreline trail and dedicating 5.1 hectares to parkland to offset any damage to the area.

Others backed the Katzie First Nation's claims.

Resident Chuck Russell told council, “If you think that it’s OK not to build relationships and, in the very least, consult respectfully with Indigenous nations then you’re in for a reckoning.”

Many worried the proposed development would lead to cascading land speculation along the south shores of the river, one of 20 Heritage Rivers in the province and only two in the Lower Mainland.

“A river is a lifeline. It’s a wildlife corridor. It’s a roadway for the fish to move up and down the river. It’s a green zone to temper climate change,” says Ken Stewart, president of Alouette River Management Society (ARMS). “By building housing in on this river, they’re messing with it.” 

ARMS claimed “procedural unfairness” this week after the organization says it was denied technical reports paid for by the developer. The group eventually gained access to the reports through a Freedom of Information request, but claims it was left in the dark due to its threats of judicial review should the development proceed. 

A DANGER TO FISH AND PEOPLE

For years, ARMS and the Katzie First Nation have been in conversation with the province and BC Hydro to open up a path for kokanee salmon cut off from the ocean when the Alouette Dam was built a century ago. 

Unlike some of their landlocked sisters, the kokanee in Alouette Lake have a propensity to return to the ocean. That’s led many to propose a fish ladder over the dam, or in a less likely scenario, to remove it entirely.

Flooding has shown what’s possible.

As the reservoir fills, BC Hydro releases water through a tunnel to the Stave Reservoir and through a spill gate into the river below. But with heavy rainfall, water can fill the reservoir three times faster than the utility can empty it.

“It hits a certain point, they shut the gate to protect the integrity of the dam,” says Stewart. “It spills over the top and there’s nothing they can do about it.” 

In 2005, a spillover acted as an escape route for several kokanee salmon. Two years later, salmon found returning to the river were genetically traced back to the fish above the dam.

The salmon's once-unthinkable path to the sea also poses a threat to people in the way of rising waters. The most serious spillovers have caused catastrophic flooding for hundreds of residents and a class action lawsuit against BC Hydro.

Stewart says the Alouette watershed below the dam is big enough to cause flooding on its own, and what he describes as a “gun-for-hire” hydrology report commissioned by the City of Maple Ridge leaves out a lot of vital data.

“The hydrology report says they’re not considering climate change,” says Stewart. “But we know from other studies that what used to be a 500-year flood will be a 200-year flood, a flood you’ll have every 20 years will now be every 10 years.”By developing properties along the river now, critics worry it will lead to a wave of development, putting both fish habitat and more human lives at risk.

Glacier Media has asked the City of Maple Ridge to respond to claims its report left out key data, but it has yet to respond. 

City council is expected to address the proposed development on June 22, when it will consider a third reading of the plan. 

Should the city choose to go ahead with the development next week, Stewart says his organization will take the city to court to ensure the process wasn't tainted.

“They can do this. It’s just morally wrong. It’s against the official community plan. It’s against the will of the people. It’s just in the interest of the developer,” he says.