Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Future of Coburg Peninsula at Esquimalt Lagoon


Coburg Peninsula is the spit of land that forms Esquimalt Lagoon, just west of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia on Canada's wet coast. The peninsula means different things to different people. To some it is a road connecting one part of Colwood to another, or perhaps something they look out on from their backyards. For these and other people the peninsula is a key feature of Esquimalt Lagoon, which is both a migratory bird sanctuary and a popular recreation area. And to emergency officials Coburg Peninsula is a vital exit route and shortcut to Fort Rodd Hill.

From an environmental perspective, talk about the future of Coburg Peninsula is really a discussion about the future of Esquimalt Lagoon itself, for as the peninsula goes, so goes the lagoon. Save the peninsula and one stands a good chance of saving the lagoon. Misuse and mistreat the peninsula and the lagoon stands a good chance of being lost at some point in the not-too-distant future. That would be a tragedy indeed, for Esquimalt Lagoon is the jewel in the crown of Colwood’s public spaces.

Viewed in this light, Coburg Peninsula’s future would seem to hinge, in part at least, on the scale and footprint of a number of proposed developments in the surrounding area. These developments, which include Legacy Estates, Royal Bay and the proposed Michelle skyscraper condominium, are bound to place increasing pressure on Esquimalt Lagoon in general, and Coburg Peninsula in particular. Assuming these developments get approved, the only realistic way to protect the peninsula may be to take steps to reduce vehicular traffic on that stretch of Ocean Boulevard. And the best way to do that is to prevent commuter traffic from using Coburg Peninsula as a secondary transportation artery.

The Current Traffic Problem

Coburg Peninsula is already buffeted by vehicular traffic. Traffic surveys conducted in 2004, for instance, indicate that on weekdays upwards of 500 vehicles traverse this stretch of Ocean Boulevard during the morning and evening rush hour periods. It is estimated that at least another 500 vehicles enter the area each day on average for recreational purposes.

No one can say for sure what impact all of this traffic is having on the local environment. However, it is obvious to even the casual observer that the resulting air pollution, noise and speeding traffic cannot but have a negative effect on the birds found in this migratory bird sanctuary – including the significant numbers of herons, geese, ducks and swans regularly found there.

At the very least, the authorities should be asking themselves whether the passage of significant numbers of vehicles through the area at least five days a week is consistent with its status as a migratory bird sanctuary.

The Looming Threat

If the current traffic situation is bad enough now, proposed developments in the vicinity pose serious threats to Esquimalt Lagoon in general, and Coburg Peninsula in particular. Chief among these proposals are the Lagoon Estates and Michelle developments to the north, as well as the Royal Bay development to the west. The Lagoon Estates development calls for approximately 600 units to be built on the property adjacent to the lagoon. The Michelle concept calls for a 41-storey condominium to the area northeast of the lagoon. For its part, Royal Bay will see a total of 2150 units built in phases.

Unless planning steps are taken, these developments would inevitably result in more and more vehicular traffic along Coburg Peninsula. Conceivably, at some point down the road Esquimalt Lagoon’s continued vitality or indeed its very existence could be jeopardised by these new sources of traffic.

Proposed Mitigative Measures: An Assessment

One way to mitigate the potentially negative impact of Royal Bay traffic on Esquimalt Lagoon would be to block off access to and from Royal Bay via Lagoon Road. However, new traffic from Lagoon Estates alone could conceivably double the amount of commuter use of Coburg Peninsula each weekday. As for the Michelle development, its potential impact on local traffic flows is unknown at the present time.

The principal way in which the Interim Management Guidelines proposed for Coburg Peninsula intend to deal with the traffic problem is to slow traffic down by placing an obstruction midway along the peninsula, which vehicles would have to go around. This may have its intended effect, but whether it is enough to cause commuters to take another route is an open question.

Preventing Access to Coburg Peninsula by All Commuter Traffic

Given the present and future threats that increases in vehicular traffic along Coburg Peninsula present to Esquimalt Lagoon, the only realistic approach to dealing with the problem may be to close off that particular stretch of Ocean Boulevard to commuter traffic. This proposal would seem to have a degree of support from local residents, but it is rejected by civic officials, who point to the boulevard’s key role as an emergency access route.

This undoubtedly valid objection to closing off Coburg Peninsula to commuter traffic could be overcome by placing a locked gate midway along the peninsula, which could only be opened by emergency officials using a remote control device. The idea is that officials would be able to open the gate for their own use, and for the use of the general public during other emergencies such as earthquakes, forest fires, etc., when secondary access routes are required. The advantage of a remote control device is that emergency vehicles would not lose valuable time by having to stop and open the gate during an emergency call.

Such a solution would have the effect of allowing recreational users to continue to access Esquimalt Lagoon via Ocean Boulevard from both directions, while making through traffic impossible.

Summary and Conclusion

Saving Esquimalt Lagoon involves much more than just taking steps to conserve Coburg Peninsula. Valid as all those proposed measures are, an ecosystem-based approach is required if the entire lagoon is to have a sustainable future. This means that one has to take into account what is happening not just on the peninsula, but within the watershed of the lagoon as well. It also means moving beyond the parochial view apparently held in some quarters that Coburg Peninsula is “just another artery” within Colwood’s road network.

It would seem that unless drastic steps are taken, traffic density on the Coburg Peninsula stretch of Ocean Boulevard is bound to increase dramatically in years to come. The consequences of this heightened activity cannot be but negative for the environment in general, and wildlife in particular.

One way to prevent this deteriorating situation from developing would be to take steps to prevent the area from being used by commuters, while continuing to facilitate access by recreational users and emergency vehicles alike.

In the final analysis, the matter of saving Esquimalt Lagoon is not just a traffic or transportation issue. Rather, it is a question of where Esquimalt Lagoon fits into Colwood’s long term plan. Ultimately, what the issue comes down to is how much the community values such outstanding natural spaces, and what sacrifices it is prepared to make to conserve them.

If Colwood sees itself as a progressive, green community, and wishes to project this image to the rest of the world as well, then taking a bold step to conserve Esquimalt Lagoon would be as good a place as any to start.