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Snails stall development

A proposed $80-million commercial and residential development application in Mission is moving at a snail’s pace, and it’s all because of an Oregonian visitor.

Carhoun and Sons Enterprises applied for an environmental impact assessment in September 2009 for 33 acres of property on the northwest corner of Wren Street and Lougheed Highway known to be habitat for the Oregon forestsnail (OFS).

The OFS is designated as an endangered species federally and is provincially red-listed, affording it protection both by the provincial Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act.

But more than two years later the company is still waiting for an answer from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Although DFO gave approval from a fisheries perspective in July of this year, Environment Canada (EC) stalled the process citing concerns about the snail, which led to confusion over whether the property in question is considered “critical habitat.”

According to Joshua Malt, ecosystems biologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, this is one of only 36 known habitat sites for the snail in Canada.

“We don’t know at what point removing these sites will lead the population to collapse in Canada, but the issue is we want to prevent that from happening,” he said in a telephone interview.

Malt had responded to Carhoun’s own environmental study on the possible salvage and translocation of snails with a letter in September that stated “[it] does nothing to prevent habitat loss and fragmentation” of the species. Snails introduced to new sites are unlikely to survive if they are not already naturally present, he added.

An analysis of the B.C. Conservation Data Centre that monitors wildlife, however, shows 58 recorded locations in the province where the snail’s shell has been found, and at least 48 locations where it has been found alive.

The site’s developer, Karel Carhoun, said the Lougheed Highway widening project from Wren Street to Nelson Street was approved despite the fact it impacts the same snail habitat as the proposed development. And Carhoun said the SmartCentre project across the highway also has snails, but that a similar environmental study wasn’t triggered because the property doesn’t have any water sources.

Abbotsford-Mission MLA Randy Hawes said he doesn’t understand why the highway widening project was given the go ahead with a mitigation plan, while this one has been stalled.

“I don’t know why we do this. We seem to think that because we’re on the extreme boundary [of the snail habitat] and you find some rarity that these are things we have to provide protection for,” he said. “It seems to me there’s a lot of teamwork that seems to go on between those at DFO that have very big reputations for halting projects and some of the folks in the ministry of environment.”

Craig Sciankowy, regional team leader for DFO in Mission, defended the collaboration with EC and the province, saying they have to look beyond just fisheries resources when managing the environment. He said a decision from the federal agency will likely come sometime this week.

But Randy Kamp, MP for Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission and parliamentary secretary to the minister for DFO, acknowledged that a two-year delay in making such a decision isn’t ideal.

“One thing that’s clear throughout this whole thing is the environmental assessment decision-making process needs to be modernized and streamlined,” he said by telephone from Ottawa.

However, Kamp said if a commercial development trumped environmental concerns every time, there would be no environmental protections.

The issue was originally raised by Carhoun at last Monday’s regular council meeting, prompting council to draft a letter to DFO and both provincial and federal environment ministries, as well as MLAs and MPs, asking for a timely answer to the environmental application.

Coun. Mike Scudder said whether or not the project proceeds, it has been unacceptable to wait so long to get an answer from the federal government.

“We do the best we can, but we want to be as thorough as possible and make sure we do it properly,” said Sciankowy.

There are at least two other instances in which the OFS was discovered during a development proposal in which the developers eventually received permission to move ahead.

The South Fraser Perimeter Road project was permitted to proceed under the terms of the April 21, 2011 wildlife management plan which allowed the translocation of the snails to a forested area northwest of the the site, as well as a nearby forested ravine area.

In 2006 a residential development in Abbotsford’s Marshall Road and McKee Peak area was originally denied approval, but was overturned in 2007 by the Environmental Appeal Board, which ruled there was no evidence the snails would survive in the habitat given the encroachment of human activity anyway.

It’s a similar argument Carhoun is trying to make in his project. As well, while the snail is an endangered species in Canada, as the name implies the OFS is more abundant south of the border.

That argument doesn’t sway Malt.

With climate change, the habitat of the snail could change drastically, meaning scientists can’t count on the snail’s southern range to protect the species as a whole, he said.

According to an e-mail from EC obtained by The Record on Monday, it has recommended that DFO deny the application, citing “the project, as currently proposed would result in likely, adverse, residual environmental effects of uncertain significance.”

Should DFO accept EC’s recommendations, Carhoun is planning to appeal and he has support from Hawes.

The local MLA wants to set up a Fraser Valley task force of mayors, MLAs, chambers of commerce, aboriginal leaders, fishers and farmers who have had trouble with “obstructionist” governmental environment agencies like DFO.

The Carhoun project could generate as many as 1,000 jobs and provide $2.5 million in additional property taxes to the district based on estimates made by Mission’s economic development officer, Stacey Crawford.

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