West Kelowna residents fighting to protect at-risk turtles and neighbourhood from large church development - InfoNews

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West Kelowna residents fighting to protect at-risk turtles and neighbourhood from large church development

A Devon Road church development is being opposed by West Kelowna residents. Wade and Peter Neukomm are leading the charge.
May 16, 2020 - 12:00 PM

For more than 30 years, Wade Neukomm has watched the landscape that framed his youth morph into an unusual hodgepodge of industrial and residential space, with slivers of natural life surviving at its fringes.

He’s seen neighbourhood turtle ponds encroached on as gravel pits and houses spread past old boundaries, and diverse bird communities thrive alongside a series of nearby helicopter companies.

Despite it all, he said, the neighbourhood that he’s known for so long has maintained some natural life and the family-friendly character its developers had intended, with help from a complement of its original residents.

But a plan to build a church that is currently before West Kelowna city council is, by his estimates, as well as 500-plus others who have signed a petition against it, threatening the precarious balance of it all and they’re banding together to make their case known.

A Devon Road church development is being opposed by West Kelowna residents.
A Devon Road church development is being opposed by West Kelowna residents.

“People ask why the urgency, but we have to get out there and do something now,” Neukomm said, while walking through the neighbourhood known by locals by its original name, County Pines, on a sunny spring day.

The Evangel Baptist Church development, he said, has progressed quickly with first and second reading finished with the bare minimum of outreach to neighbours required before it happened. It, he said, would have been little during normal times, but was even more lacking during a pandemic.

“One of the people who live on a property that shares a property line with the proposed development didn’t even know that this was being proposed until we told him,” Neukomm said.

“They posted the development sign (at the entry point of the lot on) Devon Road, and he would never had a reason to see it.”

The city’s perceived lack of outreach and the impact of a 6,000-square-foot building and accompanying 55-stall parking lot and road have provided a lot of conversation fodder for Neukomm and his dad, Peter, and they’ve explored the related issues often and thoroughly with neighbours as they walked through the subdivision with a petition in hand.

On a sunny spring day, they did it again, making stops that highlighted what they felt was most at risk — all of which circle around a couple of ponds that are home to at-risk painted turtles.

First was the backyard of a home at the end of Surrey Road that overlooks a gully that the church would be built at the bottom of. The gully is at the heart of a lot of Neukomm’s concerns and he calls it a treasure that residents have left untouched for 46 years.

“It never even had a fence around it,” he said, gesturing to the space that dips below the homes around it.

“It’s been carefully watched over by residents who cherish it. Then within a year, it was purchased, a plan was put forward and they want to make changes to everything and they’re not finding a solution to the problems they’re presenting — they’ve handed it to the city and they’re presenting solutions to everything.”

Despite being off Westlake Road, where a steady flow of concrete trucks and other industrial vehicles rumble by all day, the space offers a veneer of rural life to residents.

A Devon Road church development is being opposed by West Kelowna residents.
A Devon Road church development is being opposed by West Kelowna residents.

The plan before council would require making a connection from Westlake Road, diverting congregants into the base of the valley taking much of the forest and other natural assets away.

The topography of the land is challenging, and Neukomm thinks creating a road in would slice up the property, making it unrecognizable.

“It’s incredible. (City planners) speak about the importance of buffers and making sure there will be a buffer if the development goes through, but if they do, all the trees that are here will be ripped out and they will build a buffer,” he said. “It’s not the same as what’s actually here by any stretch of the imagination.”

When it comes to the natural environment, it's not just the forest that's at risk.  

Just past the property, there’s a pond that’s part of a network of marshy areas that have been home to the painted turtle, a species at risk that has managed to stay fairly robust despite the encroachment of development. Neukomm said the sheer size of the development and the number of people it would have to accommodate would mean significant construction and given that the pond is the lowest point in the area it's obvious to him there will be runoff into the habitat, regardless of how many dry wells are built.

“This pair of water systems has been choked by humans ever since they started coming into this area, starting with the gravel pits and the development of this road,” Neukomm said.

“So we’re all active participants in its demise, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop it. This would be the last nail in the coffin. This is the last frontage of the two ponds that isn’t fully developed.”

While the land has always been up for development, residents assumed it would be a single-family home.

"A covenant from 1973 is registered on the property that restricts construction on the subject property to one single-family dwelling," reads the city report on it. Other restrictions of the building scheme include no businesses, no storage of vehicles or machinery, no poultry, swine, sheep or cows, and height restrictions on fencing. The owner has been advised of the covenant; however, due to the City of West Kelowna not being party to this covenant it does not prevent the application from being accepted and considered by Council."

That rubs Wade’s dad Peter Neukomm, very much the wrong way.

“I’ve been here since 1986… and for the last 26 homes, when they were put in, there was a restricted covenant saying this was to be and remain, rural residential,” Peter said.

“That means one house and different things attached to it, and that has been in place since 1974. My concern as a resident, as it is now the entrance to this rural residential property, is if it is zoned a P2, that’s institutional assembly, with a restaurant or a pub possibly going in — or subdivided. That makes no sense, we cannot have that traffic going through our property.”

At the last meeting where the issue came up, city staff also indicated that they didn’t share the concern about a large scale development moving in.

“Existing steep slopes and environmentally sensitive areas,” negate the possibility, reads the report by staff that went before council.

Nor do concerns that the traffic the development would bring would cause harm to the neighbourhood.

“Concerns related to on-street parking and added traffic on local collector roads are not anticipated due to the proposed principal access/egress proposed from Westlake Road and with access from Devon Road / Devon Court limited to emergency purposes,” the report reads.

“Should the applicant be successful in rezoning the property, more detailed geotechnical and environmental information will be required at development permit to ensure proposed development conforms to specific hillside and environmental guidelines.”

In fact, they say the church development aligns with the purpose of the ‘Neighbourhood’ Growth Management Designation for complete communities.

The Neukomms and hundreds more disagree and at a Public Hearing they will be there to say as much.

This story was originally published May 14.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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