Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Area D candidates Rodney Penway (left), Bill Schwarz (second from right) and Ron Obirek (right) at an all-candidates forum held in Okanagan Falls on Tuesday. Kristi Patton/Western News

Area D: Candidates take jabs at past director’s decisions

All three candidates faced off in a forum held in Okanagan Falls

Candidates took jabs at decisions made by previous directors, including one currently running after stepping away from politics for four years, at a forum held in Okanagan Falls on Tuesday evening.

Ron Obirek and Rod Penway poked at the management of parks and economic development, including decisions made during candidate Bill Schwarz terms (2002-2011) as director during the two hour forum for residents of Area D in the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.

In May, Area D received provincial approval to split putting communities on the east side of Skaha Lake (including Okanagan Falls, Skaha Estates, Heritage Hills, Upper Carmi and Vaseux Lake). Communities on the west side of the lake are now in the newly-created Area I. Area D incumbent Tom Siddon announced he would not be running again leaving the seat up for grabs.

Related: Area D split approved

Obirek, who sits on the Heritage Hills home owners association and Okanagan Parks and Recreation commission, told the packed house that on Aug. 1, 2009 he moved into his home.

“On Aug. 2, 2009 I heard my neighbour tell me about the park that was supposed to be in Heritage Hills that didn’t happen. We formed a community association in response to a boil water advisory and we couldn’t get answers. We had a meeting at the seniors centre and we had over 90 people attend. At that meeting director Schwarz was invited and he spoke. He was disrespectful. He was unresponsive. That is one of the reasons I am running today,” said Obirek. “I was not at all impressed with his response. The park was mentioned, other issues were mentioned, the boil water was mentioned. Mr. Schwarz at that time said you have got your park and it is in OK Falls. It was disrespectful.”

Related: Former Area D director planning to run again

Penway also took his shots at past administration, mainly the management of economic development.

“We did have an economic development officer, hired and paid for, and he did not seem to produce any value for his salary.”

He said in the past directors have been trying to attract people to the area by showcasing the industrial land available and “there hasn’t been a retail shopping community and support for businesses.” Penway then said that over the past few years the town centre plan was created including all the lands from the channel to the highway and down to the waterfront to be rezoned into moderate density development — primarily all zoned for four-storey condos.

“The idea is that if we increase the population in a concentrated area there will be enough residential support to support additional businesses … Now we are going to have to see how that works,” said Penway.

“Probably those people living in those mobile trailer parks will be evicted like those ones in Penticton were and a condo will go up. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but it is development and that is what we planned for in the future with those proposals.”

Obirek said there is no easy solution, but there is hope when wineries in the area are thriving and find people who care about the aesthetic of the area to outside visitors.

“They will tell you that they are embarrassed by that gas station that looks like a bombed out war zone. And they are embarrassed when their friends and family come and we all know what is possible. So how do we do it? It is a challenge but it is possible. We can look at Peachland, look at Rossland.”

Schwarz said growing communities and information he has read over the years shows that the population is a little too small being too close to a larger city to make a lot of retail viable.

“Simplistically put if another 1,000 people move in to Okanagan Falls retailers will start to become viable because there will be enough people to shop in the area. So that then begs how do we do that? Affordable housing. Let’s get affordable housing here and start getting people in,” said Schwarz.

The former Area D director said one way to bring people here is attracting tele-commuters — people who can live in Okanagan Falls but can do their work from home, despite their main offices or clients being spread across the country or internationally.

Schwarz said he wants to hear from area residents to ensure the region is being shaped the way they want. He promised to be accessible and to “work relentless” with the RDOS, provincial and federal governments.

Obirek said he thinks the area can do better and be more responsive.

“That is why I am standing here. I think we can do better and I am frustrated. We heard Bill Schwarz talk earlier about nobody said anything from 2002 to 2011 when we talked to Bill and asked him to do something. I will tell you what happened, they were saying something but no one was listening. It makes me mad because they were saying something. Bill wasn’t listening. The RDOS wasn’t listening.”

In his closing statement, Penway said there were plenty of mistakes made over the years including putting power lines in Heritage Hills.

“I think you need somebody that has the ability to look at budgets, to look at planning and to be able to assess things and come up with other ideas and not just accept things like somebody tells you that all the leases at the national park will be honoured.”

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