One Langley?   1 comment

Langley could be the Fermat’s Last Theorem of municipal governance.

Remember Fermat’s Last Theorem?  Mathematician Pierre de Fermat scribbled it into a margin of the mathematics book Arimethica in 1637.  He claimed he had a proof, but opted not to include it because it wouldn’t fit into the margin.

Fermat’s unproven theorem tortured professional and amateur math sleuths for the next 358 years until British mathematicians Andrew Wiles and his former student Richard Taylor successfully proved it correct in 1995.  Prior to that year, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Fermat’s Last Theorem in its section of ‘most difficult math problems’.

Uniting the City of Langley, the Township of Langley and all the fiefdom-like mini-Langleys within their boundaries into a single community having a unified vision for the future – politically and socially – could be as lengthy a process as solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The two official Langleys (Langley City and Langley Township) share emergency (except firefighting), hospital and water/sewer services, recreational facilities, a commuter airport, community centers and a public school system, the majority of which lie within the Township.  Work on common roads is coordinated.  Both belong to the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), a regional planning body.  Everything else is up for grabs.

All is not war and all is not peace.  Competing visions of the future created two Langleys, visions that today remain on a collision course.  Langley City is content to let sleeping dogs lie.  Langley Township wants to grow in a big way.

Blessed by some of the world’s richest, most productive soil and a mild climate, the Township, founded in 1873 in Fort Langley (!) developed into a thriving agricultural center.  Roughly 75% of the township remains a rural enclave.

Known initially as Innes Corners, later Langley Prairie when awarded a post office in 1911, Langley City developed as a regional rail, supply and commercial center for the western Fraser Valley, supplanting Fort Langley.  Following the establishment of an inter-urban rail line by the BC Electric Railway in 1910, the community grew and prospered.  Growing and facing greater demands for urban services, the city incorporated as a separate municipality in 1955.

Langley City, an urban area on the western edge of Langley’s land mass, looks to Vancouver and its eastern suburbs for political and social inspiration.  Its lifestyle and feel is that of a large town with a cohesive sense of community.

Langley Township, 75% of which is still zoned for agricultural use, has more in common politically and socially with its eastern neighbor Abbotsford, laying within the Fraser Valley Regional District.  With large swaths of rural land separating its population centers, the feel of the Township is of a collection of separate camps each with its own agenda.

Those camps have but one common denominator – they lie within Langley Township’s borders.  Some, like Fort Langley and Murrayville are historic settlements; others like Willoughby and Walnut Grove are modern ones.

Without the twin anchors of Fort Langley and Langley City historically servicing the needs of its farmers and ranchers, it’s fair to say that the Township of Langley might not exist as known today.

Planners across British Columbia’s farming and ranching regions utilize agricultural land reserves (ALR) in the hopes of keeping land in the hands of agricultural producers and abating sprawl.  Parcels as small as 2 1/2 acres can be included in an ALR, whether or not used for production.  Presence within an ALR sets limits on development and is taxed at a lower rate.  Land may be taken out of and even returned to the ALR.  How easily it can be done varies by municipality.

Langley City doesn’t deal much with the ALR because it has so little agricultural land.  Most of Langley Township lies within it.  The Township allows property owners to move land out of the ALR in piecemeal fashion.  Conceivably, that parcel could be re-zoned allowing a subdivision, warehouse or office park to be built between two farms.  Therein lies a rub.

On paper, the Township boasts with pride of the amount of land and small farms still producing food, wine grape and livestock.  On the other hand, its civic leaders understand that the key to the Township’s long-term financial health doesn’t come from farmland.  It comes from taking land out of the ALR and re-purposing it for development as routinely done in fast-growing neighboring Abbotsford and Surrey, increasing the tax base.

Removing land from the ALR however presents other pitfalls:  if too much goes away, the Township cannot continue to offer the country lifestyle it has so successfully exploited to lure newcomers.  Enticing developers to build new subdivision communities in rural areas requires the expensive step of extending services.

With completion of the new Golden Ears toll bridge crossing the Fraser connecting Walnut Grove to Maple Ridge, the Township is poised for rapid growth and an influx of new residents seeking alternatives to high housing costs across the river… if a way can be found to pay for needed investments and services without raising its tax rates.

One Langley is a potential solution.  The Langley Reunification Association (aka One Langley) is organizing a petition drive urging the two Langleys to jointly commission a feasibility study exploring the merits of unification.  Predictably, the majority of One Langley supporters hail from the Township – no surprise given its lopsided population compared to that of Langley City.  Organizers, five each from city and township cite duplication of services and ensuing waste, the establishment of a singular vision for growth and lower taxes for all as reasons for unification.

Nobody from One Langley offers proposals or ideas as to how a unified Langley should be governed.  ‘All we want is a joint feasibility study to explore the benefits of reunification,’ is the mantra spoken by earnest petition organizers.

To which the unspoken question:  If all they want is a jointly commissioned study, shouldn’t this campaign include a question mark in its name?

What becomes clear from paging through the association’s website is its unabashed agitation for merger of the Langleys.  It argues that many individuals approached at public events by its activists don’t know there are two Langleys (how can one not realize this when traveling through western parts of Langley?) or don’t know why two Langleys exist (entirely possible given the large number of young families living within both municipalities).

Unification of the Langleys is like s a volcano going dormant between eruptions – or a patient that just won’t die.  This can gets kicked around periodically – but this effort is the first calling for a feasibility study.

The ramifications of unification are clear to Langley City fathers:  the city would likely disappear into the larger Langley Township and with it, its identity, progressive vision and representation.  The Township would get a financial shot in the arm from the City’s robust commercial and industrial tax base.  Langley City is running in the black – not true of the Township.

In short, Langley City pols and officials see the ‘One Langley’ solution as a land and money grab for which they’re not falling.  They want nothing to do with reunification – or even a feasibility study.

The City prides itself on its successful response to the needs of its citizenry, effected by it being a small governmental area serving a small population.  On its face the argument appears to spin adages appealing for ‘small government’ to an extreme.  American-style small government featuring low taxes and few services as espoused by Southern and Midwestern Republicans and Libertarians is not what Langley City defends or wants.  What they want is what they – and the American state of Vermont – already have.

Langley City has a potent example of why it believes amalgamation will not benefit its citizens:  the 1998 amalgamation of six suburban municipalities and one regional municipality into a single municipality, the current City of Toronto.

Creation of municipalities in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction.  Despite opposition expressed at the ballot box by citizens in both the City of Toronto and the smaller city and regional municipalities, the Ontario government rammed the measure through.  The provincial Conservatives running Ontario at the time wanted to lower costs to all, reduce staff, cut service duplication and swap waste for greater efficiency.

Despite initial savings following amalgamation, none of the Conservatives’ goals were realized a decade later.  Projected annual savings of $300 million didn’t happen.  Ten years after, the larger city employed slightly more than 4,000 more people than it and the amalgamated municipalities did pre-merger.

Former suburbanites turned Torontonians argue Downtown Toronto and its wealthier residents received the lion’s share of money and attention a decade later, an argument backed by a University of Toronto study released in December 2007.  Conversely, pre-almagamation efforts to improve community facilities for residents of poorer neighborhoods were less possible without an infusion of dollars from wealthier environs within the city.  Neighborhoods at the extreme ends of the money scale benefited the most.

Amalgamation’s main benefit in Toronto is the elimination of multiple governmental units, allowing the city to quickly make sweeping city-wide planning decisions that never could have survived the approval processes of six different governments intact.

The price, some argue is the feeling of greater disconnection from city government and bureaucrats persisting in the minds of many residents.  A decade later, citizens did not feel the city was responsive to their needs or those of their neighborhoods.  They were not unified as Torontonians.

Langley City isn’t taking the movement for a single Langley laying down.  A 36-page rebuttal to reunification prominently appears on the city’s website home page.  Perhaps coyly, no mention of the proposed joint feasibility study or of the Langley Reunification Association are made on the Township’s web site.

Crunching numbers posted on City and Township websites bears out Langley City’s argument.  No duplication of services exist within the two Langleys.  The cost per taxpayer for services in the separate communities is a wash.  From the City’s perspective, reunification holds no advantage.

The drama continues.  Perhaps someday the Langleys will politically reunite as one, though it doesn’t seem likely.  Even less likely is the prospect of it adopting a single identity.


One response to “One Langley?

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  1. Great views on that!

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