PODS embraced as ‘positive change’ at public hearing

“I’m going to try not to be emotional,” said Pender Harbour resident Dwayne Dobson before telling Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) directors why he wants them to approve permits for the Pender Harbour Ocean Discovery Station (PODS). “My daughter broke my heart the other day. She told me she wanted to be a marine biologist. That’s because of PODS.”

More than 25 people spoke at the May 14 public hearing in Madeira Park about PODS, and most threw their support behind the project, which requires amendments to the Pender Harbour Official Community Plan and a zoning bylaw.

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A mix of business owners, neighbours, long-time and new residents, young professionals and retirees spoke in favour. Members of Ruby Lake Lagoon Society, the organization behind the project, also spoke, as did the project’s architect, who told the crowd he had put his “heart and soul” into PODS.

Parking, traffic and the potential for yet another failed operation in the area were cited as causes for concern while economic invigoration and diversification, culture and the promise of conservation and education were repeatedly invoked as reasons to move ahead.

“This is positive change. Parking is parking, it can be fixed. The future can’t unless we fix it together,” Dobson told Halfmoon Bay director and SCRD chair Lori Pratt and Area A director Leonard Lee, echoing many speakers’ concerns about climate change and environmental degradation and their hope that PODS be used as a force for good.

The project, expected to cost at least $20 million, would include an auditorium for arts and culture events and conferences, a research facility and aquarium, restaurant and pub, gift shop and boat ramp, among other elements, and was billed by SCRD planner Yuli Siao as “undoubtedly the most unique development on the Sunshine Coast.”

The few who expressed concerns bracketed their criticisms with measured support. David Twentyman, who lives near the PODS site at Irvines Landing, told directors that while he is “not opposed as such to the concept of PODS,” other businesses in the area that have since shut down “all suffered from one problem: parking.” He voiced skepticism that traffic would be minimized with shuttle service, and predicted the influx of visitors would mean cars parking in residential areas and an invasion of privacy in the quiet residential area.

One woman asked that the SCRD modify its bylaw to exclude animal captivity from the site.

Some speakers acknowledged those concerns. “We don’t need this to be a divisive issue,” said long-time resident Jane McOuat Farrer, who added: “I don’t like change, but I welcome this change.”

Many saw that change through the lens of economic development. “We need to diversify,” said Bill Hunsche, who works in real estate. A handful of tourist accommodation operators said the promise of year-round events would benefit the local economy and attract young people to an area rich with retirees.

As if to punctuate that point, one young man who moved to the area from Ontario a month ago told directors, “Here I am, an example already, of a positive change, of somebody coming into the community that has been brought here because of PODS.”

Many opted to stand and face the audience, despite requests from Pratt, who chaired the hearing, to face the directors who were there to absorb the comments. That included the first speaker, Walter Kohli, a former director on the Lagoon Society board, and manager of the Painted Boat Resort in Madiera Park, who said the project “goes way beyond tourism,” to bring education and a research facility to the Sunshine Coast.

“I grew up in a very small farm community and I had very little vision of the possibilities out there in the big world. How wonderful for our children and the young people in this community … to get involved directly in protecting in the environment and our oceans.”

The last speaker of the night was Michael Jackson, executive director for PODS, who also stood and faced the large crowd. “I’ve worked all my life on environmental issues,” he said. “Right now, it’s dismal… What we’ve got to do is just stop talking about it and do something about it. And that’s what PODS is about.”

With the public hearing over, directors are not permitted to receive any communications about the project before the SCRD board gives consideration of third reading to the bylaw and OCP amendments.    

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