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Eliza Olson: protecting Burns Bog from developers

Eliza Olson is the founding president and a full-time volunteer with Burns Bog Conservation society, is photographed at Burns Bog in Delta, British Columbia, Sunday, July 28, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

With a growing population in the Lower Mainland, developers are looking at odd-shaped tracts of land, former industrial sites and agricultural zones as potential space for new neighbourhoods. Often, those developers' visions clash with area residents' concerns about loss of green space. That is especially the case when proposed development would occur next to Burns Bog. The bog, between the south arm of the Fraser River and Boundary Bay, is a haven for migratory birds, a flood-absorbing sponge and one of the biggest urban wilderness sites in North America. In 2004, four levels of government – Ottawa, the province, Metro Vancouver and the Corporation of Delta – paid $73-million to acquire 2,000 hectares of the 3,000-hectare bog to run as an Ecological Conservancy Area.

In January, MK Delta Lands Group submitted a plan for a 36-hectare site that abuts the Ecological Conservancy Area. The company has proposed a mixed-use development that would include up to 1,000 dwelling units in a mix of three-, four- and five-storey buildings as well as commercial space. The company says it envisions a compact walkable community where nearly half of the property would be parks, trails and walkways.

Last month, Delta asked Metro Vancouver for an amendment to its regional growth strategy that would change the designation for the MK Delta Lands site from "Conservation and Recreation" to "General Urban." Metro's regional growth strategy, adopted in 2011, has five goals including protecting the environment and responding to climate-change impacts as well as creating compact urban areas. Metro Vancouver considered that request on Friday.

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Eliza Olson is president of the non-profit Burns Bog Conservation Society, which has been lobbying against the MK Delta Lands proposal.

What happened on Friday?

Metro Vancouver told the Corporation of Delta to go back and do things properly and have the public hearings before they come back to [Metro Vancouver to request the RGS change]. It's a small victory – it means the Corporation of Delta cannot circumvent due process – it means they're going to have to hold public hearings and listen to the people of Delta.

Isn't the bog protected already – why are you worried about that particular chunk of land being developed?

Well, that chunk was supposed to be purchased in 2004. These two pieces, on either side of Highway 91, are all on what you call the lagg, or the edge of Burns Bog. [A lagg is a transition zone between a bog and higher ground.] And as you keep nibbling away at the edge of the lagg, you start impacting the water levels and the ability of the bog to survive.

You'd like to see governments buy and protect this site as well, but presumably that would cost more than it would have a decade ago?

It's also going to cost them a mint to develop this land. If they are going to try to bring it up to grade, they are going to have to bring in tonnes of fill.

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What will be some of the main issues you will be talking about as Delta officials and residents consider MK Delta Lands proposal?

People are aware of how ecologically sensitive this area is. They are very aware about climate change. They are aware of the engineering problems, traffic problems, you name it. We have been very good about educating people about peat bogs – we have been doing it for 25 years.

How did you get involved in this group and how has it, as you say, taken over your life?

I'm a late bloomer. I started university just before my 31st birthday. My youngest went to kindergarten, my oldest went to Grade 1 the day I started and I started a divorce the same time. After I did that, I felt I could do anything. And I wanted to give back to the community because I realized I wouldn't have been as successful as I had without all the community support I had.

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