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White Rock's new council aims to preserve its character, even with towers on the way

In local elections in Metro Vancouver last year, several mayors were elected after promising to stop the spread of condos in their community. None moved faster than White Rock's Darryl Walker.

While many municipalities voted to slow growth, the seaside community was quickest to make bold moves

White Rock's previous council approved an official community plan that preserved low-density buildings along the waterfront while increasing the number of towers that could be built in the town centre. (Composite/CBC)

In local elections in Metro Vancouver last year, several mayors were elected after promising, in one way or another, to stop the growth of condos in their community.

None moved faster than White Rock's Darryl Walker. 

"We said, 'This is your community. Do you want it back?' " said Walker, a retired union leader who swept to power with a team of rookie politicians. 

"We think that that's the opportunity that's available right now."

Over the next few months, White Rock will focus on repairing its iconic pier damaged in a severe December storm.

But just as important will be discussions about what happens up the hill, as the city reconsiders its recently passed official community plan which zones areas of the town centre for buildings up to 25 storeys in height.    

The immediate changes made by White Rock council show the power municipal governments have to change the path of growth in their city — while also showing their limitations. 

White Rock Mayor Darryl Walker said it's not a guarantee that height levels will be lowered when the city reconsiders its official community plan. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Reducing tower height 

If you wanted to find a single person to benefit from the change in White Rock's government, it would probably be Kelly Breaks. 

"We're like that Disney movie Up, we're the little house in between the two highrises," he said from Blue Frog Studios, the recording and concert facility he owns.

Under the previous council, two towers were approved on either side of his building, after the community plan allowed for higher buildings in the area. 

Breaks resigned from a city committee and became part of the vocal group of White Rock residents that voted three councillors out of office — with an additional councillor, running to continue the policies of the departing mayor, receiving just 21 per cent of the vote. 

In their first week in office, the new government passed a motion intending to reduce the allowable size of those two buildings from 12 storeys to six. 

"Streets are closed. There's a lineup of trucks everywhere. There's no parking. No one can get around. And I think people were just sick and tired of all that," he said.

"Continuously continuous construction." 

Four cranes prominently dot frame the main street in White Rock's downtown area. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

A dozen condos still planned 

It's a lament you could hear in many places around Metro Vancouver, but its small size and ocean views have given White Rock a political culture particularly resistant to change. 

"I realize that there is no more land and the only way is to go up, but sometimes up isn't always the answer," said Laura Cornale, who runs a popular coffee shop across the street from city hall.  

"People like to keep that small town feel, and I hope it stays that way... We don't want a concrete jungle, I don't think it suits the White Rock community."

It's why Walker feels he has an expansive mandate to overhaul the city's community plan after hearing citizen support for that position. 

"If you want to develop in White Rock, you're welcome. Come in. But understand the rules and the people of White Rock want to be able to set those rules. This is not a developers' paradise," he said. 

But White Rock illustrates the limits of what a motivated municipality can do to slow development. 

One of the two buildings in question managed to get its building permit in under the deadline, and there are nine other towers higher than 12 storeys that are under construction or have gone through the whole permitting process — all of them within a kilometre of each other in the town centre. 

There are more than a dozen towers in White Rock that are either planned or under construction. Most are concentrated in the town centre. (City of White Rock )

Add in the 20,000 people South Surrey plans to add in the next decade, and it's hard to see a future where White Rock keeps the small-town feel that has attracted people for decades. 

Elections aren't necessarily a reflection of what a community will become — but they are a reflection of how it sees itself. 

"We finally have a council and a mayor that are going to listen to the people, and bring back White Rock," said Cornale.  

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

While many municipalities voted to slow growth in the 2018 election, the seaside community of White Rock was quickest to make bold moves. 2:25