Go back and ask the neighbours
Chelsea’s next big debate is well underway: where to put the public swim spots and docks to access the Gatineau River?
At first glance, the online public consultation looks good: it’s getting impressive participation at nearly 8,000 “votes” and counting, there’s lots of room for comments and all results and comments are visible to everyone.
But there are flaws in the way the questions are designed that fuel a simmering cynicism in a number of Chelsea residents — that this is not a true “consultation” but a way of simply narrowing down five locations previously chosen by municipal staff to three or four. Or in other words, the municipality is simply ticking off the needed “consultation” box, when in practical terms Chelsea’s plan for water access is a fait accompli.
To be fair, land-locked Chelsea residents have long expressed a desire to have public access to the river, and now that the trail is here to stay, it’s better to have properly-identified access points than risk trespassers on private docks. But what is unfair to residents taking this survey is the lack of really important details that go with giving river access: parking, safety, noise, bathrooms and cost are just a few pieces of essential information that Chelsea does not provide to residents before they vote on their preferred location.
How can one vote intelligently without these important details spelled out? It feels like déjà vu — Chelsea pushing forward with a big project, while telling the public it will work out those important details later.
As for those important details, Mayor Caryl Green has said feasibility studies are costly, and those issues will be worked out after the locations are final. Yet so much information is freely available without a feasibility study: ask the locals who live near the proposed site at Kirk’s Ferry (just one example) and they will tell you – free of charge – whether the shoreline is steep and dangerous, the water is dark and deep, if parking is already a problem or if the shoreline is unstable in places. But that kind of information is not included online in the preamble to the vote on the Kirk’s Ferry location.
Instead, it's “blue skies” or “in a perfect world what is your choice?” set of survey questions.
Getting immediate neighbours’ in-depth feedback is invaluable to preventing future problems, especially the kind we have already seen down the road at the Wakefield public docks. When we asked the mayor if there would be direct consultation with neighbours to the five possible sites, she would not commit, saying the identified sites are not in proximity to homes and that any such direct consultations “are being considered.”
If things do go badly down the road with noise, garbage, parking, safety, etc., visitors to that access spot (whether from Chelsea or the city) will be able to pack up and decide never to return. But the neighbours who live there are stuck with it forever (or until they decide to sell). Considering their knowledge of the sites, and their higher stakes in the project, council should at least commit to more consultation with them.