Port Moody council candidates square off in first election event

All roads lead to Coronation Park.

It’s still early in the campaign, but current council members aiming for another term found themselves defending their decisions about the controversial planned development during a recent all-candidates meeting.

The two mayoral candidates, Meghan Lahti and Steve Milani—who both currently sit on council—voted on opposite sides of the issue when the development was before council this spring asking for an amendment to the official community plan (OCP) that would allow the development to continue moving forward.

Lahti voted with the majority to approve the OCP amendment that would make way for the 2,566-unit development at Coronation Park, while Milani and Coun. Hunter Madsen were the dissenting votes.

Milani took the opportunity at the first meeting for candidates in the upcoming Port Moody election to explain why he voted against the project.

“What came to council was so far outside the OCP,” he said. “So council had to react and find a way to make the project work, and it still, to me, it doesn’t work.”

He said he believes affordable housing should be a condition of development; it was a “huge miss” in the case of Coronation Park.

While Lahti didn’t address the Coronation Park development by name, she did talk about building affordable housing in the community.

The city does have a policy in place that “stipulates how much affordable housing we’re supposed to be putting in,” she said.

Regarding the Coronation Park development’s ask to amend the OCP, back at the council meeting in April, Lahti said area residents have suffered due to council’s ineffectiveness.

“It isn’t bold to say no,” she said during the April meeting. “We’ve been obstructionist and pushed away opportunities for too long.”

It’s time to move the project forward, she said.

“Once this neighbourhood is completed, it will house a new generation of Port Moody residents,” Lahti said.

Many candidates voiced their displeasure about the project.

Eric Davis called it a “poison pill,” while Callan Morrison called it a “massive miss,” saying many of the sitting councillors made promises last election to “expedite, to give certainty to that area, to provide jobs, daycare spaces, housing, affordable housing right next to transit.”

Morrison said there was no better place in the city to add density than on its border with Coquitlam, where the neighbouring municipality is already planning to approve a new development.

Haven Lurbiecki said council should follow the OCP when discussing developments that come before them.

“This goes back to what our official community plan is,” she said. “We should be getting our required amenities, including affordable housing provision.”

Lurbiecki called Port Moody one of the most desirable places to build in the province.

“We’re the picky clients,” she said.” That is the job of council, is to get what we need. It is to not ask ourselves what does the developer want to put in our city.”

Fight for affordability

One of the audience-submitted questions queried candidates on how the city can create more affordable housing.

Many touted the need for family and senior homes, not just towers.

But traditional affordable housing may not work in all cases, said Dawn Slykhuis, a local social worker. A subsidy model could be an alternative. As wages go up, the subsidy goes down, rather than all or nothing. She said she’s heard from people who can’t afford to work more because they’d lose their affordable housing and can’t afford market rates.

“The problem with affordable housing when it’s done in a traditional way, is that it traps people in poverty,” she said. “It says you cannot go further. Why should someone have to move out of their home just because they’re making more money?”

Davis pitched a city-owned construction company.

“If TransLink can get into the development game,” he said. “Why can’t we?”

Mayoral candidates Lahti and Milani had some different ideas.

Lahti proposed using city-owned land to build affordable housing.

“I’m not talking about selling the farm,” she said. “I’m talking about utilizing that land to create housing but then also have that land for public use.”

She said the old firehouse site could be used for affordable housing as well as a library or other community facilities.

Milani suggested utilizing non-profit partners and housing co-ops.

“We’ve got to speed up the permitting process and get rid of some of that red tape,” he said.

He and Madsen both said pre-zoning would also help.

Environmentally Sensitive Areas strategy missed the mark

The way the city rolled out the Environmentally Sensitive Areas strategy was a “gong show,” said Milani. “I’m sorry everyone had to experience [it] that way.”

Lahti agreed.

“This was done wrong right from the start,” she said. “The biggest issue with this was that nobody was consulted, not the community.”

She promised that if anything came forward, there would be “intensive community consultation.”

Many of the councillor candidates said the city bungled communication about the strategy.

“This comes back to the core principle of how we engage with our residents and inform them of what’s going on within the city,” said Morrison. “If there’s a better way to communicate changes, we want to hear that; I want to hear that.”

The ESA strategy was cancelled by council in 2021.

“The decision to return the project to Council, with a revised scope, will need to be considered in the context of other strategic priorities,” said Tim Savoie, city manager in an emailed statement. “Given our current workload and council priorities, there is no immediate plan to do so at this time.”

Crossroads

Many candidates repeated that Port Moody is at a crossroads.

The next council will be finalizing the city’s Official Community Plan (OCP), which is set to define the direction for Port Moody over the next 30 years. The OCP covers everything from land use to housing; economic development to community infrastructure; and heritage to parks and recreation. The process is long, a couple years, and began during the pandemic.

The next council has the power to determine what is next for Port Moody.

Meeting format

The first meeting of candidates running for mayor and council in Port Moody was hosted by Pleasantside Community Association at the Old Orchard Hall. Samantha Agtarap and Kyla Knowles did not attend, telling organizers they had other commitments.

Candidates gave opening statements, then prepared answers to the host organization’s two questions about the environmentally sensitive areas strategy and the next official community plan.

After a break, candidates then answered randomly-selected audience-submitted questions using a poker chip system. Mayoral candidates had five chips, each worth one minute of speaking time, while councillor candidates had three chips. They were able to stack them to have more time to answer a question, or give their chips to others.

The election is on Oct. 15.

Marissa Tiel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Tri-Cities Dispatch