The all-candidates meeting at Harrison’s Memorial Hall was packed as the audience awaited answers from Harrison council hopefuls. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The all-candidates meeting at Harrison’s Memorial Hall was packed as the audience awaited answers from Harrison council hopefuls. (Screenshot/YouTube)

ELECTION 2022: Harrison hopefuls discuss environment, reconciliation, more at all-candidates meeting

Memorial Hall packed as election approaches

A packed house came to see the Harrison Hot Springs all-candidates debate at Memorial Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 28.

All candidates were able to attend except council hopeful Allan Jackson, who sent his regrets due to a family emergency.

The meeting – moderated by Harrison-Agassiz Chamber of Commerce director Rob Hole – began with brief opening statements from each of the candidates and quickly into the first question.

“What is your vision for Harrison over the next five years?”

Incumbent council candidate Michie Vidal said attainable housing would be top priority for the village, which would require drawing upon federal and provincial programs. She prioritized the need for a second evacuation route. She noted that younger families are moving in to Harrison and that their needs must be acknowledged. Monitoring infrastructure was particularly important to her as the village grows. She also highlighted continuing work with the Sts’ailes First Nation to work toward reconciliation and to promote Harrison as a year-round destination.

Mayoral hopeful John Allen called for the immediate review of the Official Community Plan (OCP) bylaw, which would start with a review of the current OCP. Allen claimed the village fell short on a majority of the OCP’s objectives. Allen said public lands would also need to be cleaned for invasive weeds and species. He plans to revive the Recreation Commission and the Parks and Trails Committee. He wishes to get the public more involved in council business.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done in Harrison, and I intend to apply the lessons that I’ve learned from my years on this council…to provide the leadership needed to get things done,” Allen said.

Council candidate Leslie Ghezesan wants to stop the densification of the village. Like other candidates, he advocated for a second evacuation route for the village and that all future developments would be fit with a sprinkler system to further curb the danger of spreading fire.

Mayoral candidate and incumbent councillor Samantha Piper said town hall meetings would be key to a better discourse between the government and the residents. She hopes to create more committees, particularly involving accessibility and a FireSmart committee with focus on protecting homes in addition to active transportation and trails and parks.

“It goes without saying that we can only move forward if we continue to build relationships,” Piper added.

Piper said climate change should remain at the top of mind when it comes to development, develop infrastructure with rain and fire events in mind and to continue to build on tourism.

Incumbent mayor and council candidate Leo Facio said that more rental units should be a priority to alleviate the shortage of workers that affects Harrison and beyond. He agreed with Piper in creating a committee focusing on fire safety for homes and agreed with Allen concerning the need to eliminate invasive species from the village.

Council candidate John Buckley strives for a “well-balanced, productive community” and highlighted the need for support for the Miami River Streamkeepers and creating more green spaces as well as more programs for the youth. He said snow and grass removal for seniors is an often overlooked concern, saying residents have had to move because they did not receive help.

“We live in a piece of paradise,” Buckley added. “Let us treat it as such.”

Mayoral candidate Ed Wood advocated for informal meetings between government officials and the residents.

“We don’t need formal meetings for a small village at times,” Wood said. “I think it’s important for people to feel comfortable in order to talk. Every thought is a good thought, young or old.”

“How do you feel about the balance of economic development, sustainability and resident interests?”

Allen said the current commercial areas are not suitable for serving residents. He pointed to Whistler as a good example, saying there are two commercial areas easily accessible to residents – one at the village entrance and one in the village core. He highlighted the need to travel to other municipalities to learn from them and collaborate on potential solutions.

Ghezesan said densification should be better managed and utility bills should be lowered. He said the densification of the village turns it into a city, which is what some villagers moved to Harrison to avoid.

Piper acknowledged that the three-way balance is a fine line. She said while existing businesses should be supported, the village must make it easier on new businesses to move in. Piper said this is done by eliminating red tape. She again stressed the need to keep the environment at the top of mind.

“With every decision made at the council table, we must keep climate and environment top of mind,” she said. “That’s going to be issues for us moving forward if we don’t keep it a top of mind as far as council. We have to continue to listen.”

Facio said that grant funding and money from the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) have enabled the village to have better infrastructure than some municipalities of similar size. Further business growth, Facio added, would only serve to enhance community needs further. He encouraged revitalizing the Economic Development Committee as well.

Buckley said Harrison has a good mix between residential and commercial properties. He encouraged supporting local businesses and open informal meetings with business leaders to brainstorm solutions to problems.

Wood, having several years of municipal development experience, said he’s not against development, but it must be done intelligently. He shared Facio’s concern that there is not enough housing for staff at local businesses.

Vidal echoed Piper in saying the balance is one of the biggest challenge in the village. She said Harrison is one of the fastest-growing communities in the Fraser Valley and council needs to plan carefully and develop sustainably. Vidal added not only would addressing the needs of younger families help grow the village effectively. She touted promoting Harrison as a year-round destination, which she said would be a boon to the local economy.

“What steps will you take toward reconciliation?”

“So far, it’s good. We don’t have too many complaints,” Ghezesan said. Prior to answering the question, Ghezesan requested the definition of “reconciliation.”

Piper said she’s undergoing education, reading and listening on reconciliation on a personal level and encourages others to do the same. She cited her work with the Community to Community Forum, which brings District of Kent officials, Harrison officials and local First Nations leaders together to communicate. Piper would like to continue with council-to-council meetings.

“Overall, I think moving forward, that we’d continue to listen, be humble, be okay with maybe not always being right and just listen to Sts’ailes,” she added. “We live on their lands. We need to move forward and support them moving forward.”

Facio also pointed to the Community to Community Forum, which was formed in 2012. Facio hopes to continue to foster good will with local First Nations via the Fraser Valley Regional District as well.

Buckley has worked with the Sts’ailes people in the past with Community to Community. Transparency and honesty helps foster good relationships, Buckley added.

“I have been made to feel very welcome and their meetings and we will be able to carry on a good working relationship by treating each other as friends, not adversaries,” he said.

Wood has been involved in Community to Community interactions has “engaged with the senior administrative team at Seabird Island.” He believes there is a great need for all communities to work together.

Vidal said the formation of a public art committee. The groundwork of the committee’s formation is in place now that the council has approved public art regulations. She hopes to closely involve the Sts’ailes people that they may have their say in public art placement and review.

Allen said the village should work harder to reconcile with the District of Kent, taking time to welcome the district officials who were in attendance. Allen chaired the Community to Community forum when he was mayor, during which time the village talked reconciliation with more First Nations involved.

“If we’re going to talk reconciliation, we need to stop focusing on one of those communities and we need to be more inclusive,” Allen added. “I think we need to expand what we’re doing and talk to all of them.”

“What are your plans to strengthen and grow your relationships with local community groups?”

Piper, like Wood, said informal meetings would be key to building trust and working relationships with local groups. Additionally, she hopes to directly involve council in serving on a variety of committees that ideas might be brought back to the village council.

Facio concurred about creating more sociable settings when officials met with various interest groups.

“I’m getting the feeling over the last year or so that more community groups want to get together to deal with the business of council in different ways and I’m very open to that,” he added.

Buckley said he was heavily engaged with a variety of committees during his time on council, and he plans to renew that friendship. His voice joined the chorus of those promising more informal, social meetings outside of formal council proceedings.

“After all, we’re a village, and let’s remember that we are in council to work for the people,” Buckley added. “I really believe we can work together. Let’s do it.”

Wood wants to see committees addressing economic development, public art, environmental and heritage and history. He said the meetings would be casual with no recordings or minutes or council involvement unless requested.

“It’s an absolute shame that we have not said more stuff to the Advisory Planning (Commission) so that we can get some more community input,” Wood said.

Vidal recalled the grassroots effort by the community – herself included – to stop the quarry from becoming reality along Hot Springs Road. “I’m humbled at what this community managed to accomplish, and I”m here to thank each and every one of you for your participation,” she added. She encouraged more unity and wished council to be more involved in similar grassroots efforts for the future.

Allen said the community groups, many of which he has been involved in over the years, are just as important as the council itself. He called for more transparency for the Advisory Planning Commission, which is heavily involved in land use planning.

“The way the bylaw (concerning the commission) has been re-written, nobody is allowed to talk to the Advisory Planning Commission. You can’t go to the meetings, you can’t talk to them, you can’t write them a letter, and I think that’s absolutely ridiculous,” Allen added.

Ghezesan said these community groups have not been heard by the mayor and council. “That has to be changed and I hope that (after this election) this will be changed.”

“How do you plan to support current and future business growth?”

Facio wants to promote Harrison as a year-round destination, not just a place to go during the weekends and from May to September. This would make it more economically viable to start businesses in the village. He further wants closer collaboration with the Chamber.

Buckley wants to prevent the sale of the green space behind the village office; during peak tourism season, the field helped somewhat with the ongoing issue of tight parking in the village. He agreed with Facio that closer collaboration with the Chamber and the business community overall was paramount to addressing needs.

Wood touted reducing or even eliminating the current pay parking structure in place during the tourism season. He pointed out the village’s ice rink has a concession stand, which could be directly competing with businesses during the winter, which would otherwise benefit from the extra tourism traffic. He, too, stressed collaboration with the business community.

Vidal also touted year-round tourism as an ideal path forward. She said one of the ideas pitched to her recently was a winter food truck event, which she said was something to consider.

Allen, a long-time businessman in Harrison, said efforts needed to be focused on the spring and fall as summer and winter had their own draws. He suggested opening up the hot springs water license to give other businesses and opportunity to use Harrison’s natural resources.

Ghezesan claimed most of the businesses in Harrison were restaurants. He blamed the amount of red tape and bylaws, particularly concerning signage, for some businesses not being able to advertise properly.

Piper said it’s imperative to continue RMI funding for the village. She highlighted the need to support home-based business, which have particularly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Piper also encouraged Indigenous tourism.

“What is your stance on future green space planning?”

Buckley said the whole reason he came to Harrison was because of the beauty and natural resources.

” I will fight to keep the green spaces we have,” Buckley said. He added he and his wife are active in the outdoors, as are a number of residents who hold the natural beauty of Harrison near and dear. He suggested the green space near the village hall could be left as a field or converted into a park.

Wood echoed the need for green spaces. He said he would strive to preserve East Sector lands and ensure infrastructure and other projects don’t overreach into green spaces.

Vidal pointed out the current council is working to develop an urban forest master plan. She also highlighted council’s commitment to greener development when the council turned down development proposals for the former home of the Bungalow Motel due to excessive tree removal.

Allen has long held a vision of creating a Harrison Forest Park as a way of preserving green space. He claims to have planted more trees in Harrison than anyone else and stressed the need to keep trails clean.

“(Our green spaces are) such a wonderful resource both for the residents and for the visitors,” Allen said. That should be our number one priority.”

Ghezesan said unmaintained green spaces could create a major fire hazard and they must be taken care of.

Piper highlighted a bylaw that requires trees removed to be replaced. She hopes to form a trails and parks committee and move toward boulevard and accessible gardens. She stressed the need for a climate adaptation strategy and FireSmart initiatives in residential areas.

“I will fight tooth and nail to keep East Sector as is or better not only for current residents but future generations down the road,” she added.

Facio was strongly opposed against development on East Sector lands, decrying implications from Allen that the current council was in negotiations to develop on East Sector Lands.

It’s one of the last beautiful places in the Fraser Valley, and as my colleagues have said, we will stick by our guns to maintain that,” Facio added. “I’ll reiterate again, there is no development going there.”

Voting on Election Day, Oct. 15, runs from 8 a.m. to 8 Village Hall (495 Hot Springs Road).

agassizElection 2022Harrison Hot Springs

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