Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fraser Valley Conservation Coalition Press Release - Zvonko Bezjak Hopes Township Will Thoughtfully Consider Protocols In The Future

In and around June of this year, Mr. Zvonko Bezjak made a delegation before Council to express his concerns regarding the clear cutting of trees on property forming part of the Willoughby Community Lands. At that time, he presented a petition requesting the protection of some of the trees situated on his former property. That petition was signed by approximately 100 individuals. Mr. Bezjak had no further communication with the Township except for a letter from their solicitors advising that he had until the end of August to remove any trees or other personal effects from the land. In the meantime, work continued on the adjacent property which was being prepared for the new sports multiplex. In an effort to protect more Significant trees on the property than was indicated on the park proposal, Mr. Bezjak sought a legal opinion regarding the Township's ability to disregard its own tree bylaw by failing to create a Tree Retention Plan, a Tree Protection Plan, a Final Landscape Plan, etc. to ensure the protection of trees. Mr. Jonathan Baker, a solicitor, produced an independent legal opinion which was forwarded to Mayor and Council. That letter advised that the scheme of the bylaw seemed to be that where a Development takes place on municipally owned lands the reports set out in Section 15 must be completed but the Township retains the option of removing Significant Trees under some circumstances.

The Township subsequently forwarded this opinion letter to their solicitors who were of a different legal opinion. By letter dated July 23rd, 2007 Ms. Sandra Carter, of Bull, Housser & Tupper advised that in their view, the Bylaw does not apply to any trees situated on lands owned by the Township. As a result, the Township may remove any type of tree on Willoughby Community Park lands. A motion made by Councillor Kim Richter directing staff to prepare these reports was not supported by any other members of Council and therefore Mr. Bezjak was left with a difficult dilemma. As it became apparent that the Township was imminently going to start work on the property Mr. Bezjak reluctantly decided that his only recourse to save some trees would be to launch a judicial review with respect to the Township's ability to opt out of their own bylaw. Such public interest litigation is seldom undertaken by an individual against local government as it is costly and the results are often unfavorable to the applicant. However, without any other recourse Mr. Bezjak felt compelled to continue. However, at all times, Mr. Bezjak was ready to discuss and negotiate with the Township regarding any other possibilities which would mitigate the loss of a number of Significant Trees on his former property without going to Court. One of the possibilities was the cessation of the matter in return for the Township's provision of a similar 5 acres property which would be designated as a passive park to be protected for future generations in the Willoughby area. However, no further communication was forthcoming from the Township and the matter inexorably began to lead to a court date. In the interim, Mr. Bezjak hoped that interest generated in both local and regional media would result in the Township's reviewing its policy but this hope was never realized.

Mr. Bezjak filed his petition on or around August 14, 2007, but the Township's solicitors were slow to respond with a defense although they were insistent that a Court date be set down as soon as possible. Due to legal requirements from pre-trial protocol, Mr. Bezjak could not adequately assess his status in going forward until such time as Township solicitors forwarded their case outline to Mr. Baker. At that time, Mr. Bezjak was advised by Mr. Baker that although he had an arguable case that the matter would likely be found for the Township as Courts generally decide in favour of local government with respect to challenges based on vague or ambiguous language found in legislation. At that point, Mr. Bezjak was still determined to go to Court in order to have the matter reviewed but was further stymied by the withdrawal of his solicitor on October 4th, 2007. Effectively, Mr. Bezjak was given only 6 days to either find a new solicitor to advance the case or to argue the matter himself in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

In light of the preceding, Mr. Bezjak reluctantly contacted Township solicitor Mr. James Goulden on October 9th, 2007 in order to resolve the matter by a negotiated settlement. Mr. Bezjak therefore agreed to have the petition withdrawn in return for the Township's waiving their legal costs. This negotiated settlement was meant to save both Mr. Bezjak and the Township more legal costs than the ones generated to date and to allow Mr. Bezjak to get on with his life and the Township to proceed with the project. In fact, the Township is currently working on the property by preparing the site for the installation of four future playing fields.

Mr. Bezjak still believes that a legal review of the bylaw was an extremely important exercise and his only disappointment beyond the destruction of a number of trees and its surrounding ecosystem is his frustration at the Township's lack of response to his concerns and to the original petition. Although the matter was never reviewed despite his desire to have an official ruling regarding the Township's activities in the Willoughby Community Park he is nonetheless pleased that the issue gained media attention. Overall, Mr. Bezjak hopes that as a result of this exercise that the Township will thoughtfully consider the necessity of undertaking the protocols required in the Development and Control bylaw when any other municipal properties are developed in the future. After all, the Township Council and its bureaucracy are the stewards of our local environment and as such are responsible not only to the current residents but to future generations who will make their homes in Langley Township.

In conclusion, as an ameliorative gesture the Township has graciously dug up a number of trees from his former property which Mr. Bezjak will be taking to a local nursery in Chilliwack for protection this afternoon. Our suggestion to replant some of the trees in a local passive park was rejected by Parks and Recreation as they believed that they would not be viable as transplants to a new location. And as to future plans, a number of committed environmentalists are planning on making a delegation to Council sometime in the near future regarding other measures to ensure the protection of trees, especially in the area of Willoughby. We believe that since development will be on-going for the next number of years and in light of the pressing environmental concerns such as global warming that the Township should make every effort to ensure the retention and protection of the valuable resource of trees.

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