NANAIMO — An eloquent and impassioned show of support from a seasoned political veteran was enough to trigger a last second vote flip and push through a contentious proposal for two car dealerships in north Nanaimo.
By a narrow 5-4 vote, Nanaimo councillors approved third reading of a rezoning application from GAIN Auto Group to allow for two car dealerships on the former site of Long Lake Nurseries, on Wills Rd. along the Island Hwy. The vote happened in front of a packed gallery Thursday night and followed a highly-anticipated public hearing.
It appeared the rezoning bylaw was set to fail, as five of the eight councillors stated their intention to vote against third reading.
But mayor Leonard Krog was last to speak, reminding councillors they still had time to change their opinion.
"I'm going to attempt to persuade some of my colleagues in that regard," Krog said, before launching into a nearly 10-minute speech.
Krog said he was moved by words of support from people living next to the currently vacant lot. If the land had residential value, he said, that's what kind of proposal the City would have received.
"What has been suggested tonight, indirectly, is that if this is turned down we will somehow end up with the perfect proposal. I salute coun. (Don) Bonner for having the intelligence to say 'You know what, in 10 or 15 years we might get that perfect proposal. But in the meantime, what is going to happen to that land.'
"In the hope someone is going to develop that site with residences, we are going to turn down the opportunity for bringing a destination employer to our community that will provide 70 jobs. I just happen to think the prospect of 70 jobs...trumps the hope you're going to get residences built there," Krog said.
After a second round of comments from the three councillors (Jim Turley, Sheryl Armstrong and Bonner) who spoke in support of the project, coun. Zeni Maartman said she had changed her mind and would vote yes.
The flip-flop was in contrast to comments she made less than 30-minutes prior.
"I understand economic development and sending the message Nanaimo is open and welcomes businesses," Maartman initially said. "But at this particular location, at this time, I can not support it because when I drive by it, I do see an area where people can walk to the lake and I like the idea of housing."
Before changing her mind, Maartman said Council needed to lead towards the future by "always putting climate change, the environment and livable communities at the forefront."
Since it was first introduced to the previous Council in September 2018, the project has publicly pitted jobs and economic development against the City's official community plan and a commitment to long term planning. Staff took the unusual step of urging councillors to deny the rezoning, saying the site was better suited for medium-to-high mixed-use residential development.
Mark Holland, a consultant hired by GAIN to sell the proposal to Council, took aim at what he called an outdated community plan. During the public hearing, he spoke about an impending shortage of "employment lands" in Nanaimo, and cited a tangible "antipathy" towards car dealerships.
Holland said talk of residential development on the site was hypothetical and such a project would "fundamentally weaken the economic source of wealth in this community past, present and future. In contrast, what's proposed is a real project from a well-managed company with deep roots and lots of philanthropy in this community."
Councillors Erin Hemmens, Tyler Brown, Ian Thorpe and Ben Geselbracht voted against the rezoning application.
Thorpe took issue with several of Holland's comments.
"I disagree that voting against this project will weaken the economic future of our city. I disagree it will push jobs out of our city. I'm sorry, I just can't accept that," Thorpe said.
"I see the economic benefit and I don't belittle that. This is not an argument between housing and jobs. To me, the location though is just not the best use of this valuable piece of property. I see this as a future neighbourhood hub."
Brown said he maintained an open mind going into the public hearing, "but not an empty one."
"It seems we are being asked to uphold a corporate preference rather than a clearly articulated community vision...I'm left to believe that little or no effort has been made to meet the official community plan or incorporate anything other than the proponent's singular vision for the parcel," Brown said.
Nearly 20 people stood up to speak at the public hearing, with a near split in those for and against. Several neighbours and a nearby commercial strata association voiced support for the dealerships.
The bylaw must now go to the Ministry of Transportation for approval before coming back to Council for a final adoption vote.
Staff said it's unclear when that will happen.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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