Former city planner Grant Sanborn pleads guilty to ‘regulatory offences’

Crown counsel Robin McFee said same result achieved in accepting guilty plea to lesser charges over criminal breach of trust charges.

Crown and defence lawyers are suggesting a six-month suspended sentence for former city planner Grant Sanborn after he pleaded guilty to failure to enforce provincial agricultural and land titles regulations in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday.

Sanborn, 53, pleaded not guilty to criminal breach of trust charges that he was originally charged with.

Madam Justice Miriam Maisonville will deliver her decision Aug. 29 after studying the “comprehensive” joint sentencing submission made by the two lawyers.

The proposed sentence includes a term of probation and 160 hours of community work service. Sanborn has also offered to donate $5,000 to Ruth and Naomi’s Mission in Chilliwack.

Outside the courtroom, Crown counsel Robin McFee said it was in the public interest to accept Sanborn’s guilty plea to lesser charges, rather than prosecute the criminal charges, to avoid a long, six-week trial and calling a host of witnesses to events that are now 15 years old.

And in the end, he said, “the penalties would have been the same” under the criminal code as the provincial legislation.

During his court submission, McFee also suggested that Sanborn was the victim of a “culture of pro-development” at Chilliwack City Hall where employees were urged to find “creative ways” to work around municipal and provincial rules to boost development.

Sanborn was also in a position “of inherent tension and conflict,” he said, because as planning director he was an employee of the city with “a mandate to assist in the expansion of development,” yet he was also the approving officer charged with enforcing provincial legislation.

“There was a failure, unfortunately, to fully discharge those independent gatekeeper functions,” he said.

McFee said Sanborn improperly approved a residential development at Rosebank Place, violating provisions of both the Agricultural Land Commission Act and the Land Titles Act. He also approved a development called the Trails at Longthorn Creek, violating provincial setback requirements.

At Rosebank, McFee said Sanborn was aware of a “quite sophisticated plan” by the developers — which included then-Mayor John Les — that was “structured so approval would come to the approving officer” rather than the Agricultural Land Commission. The ALC had refused an earlier request to subdivide one of the properties for housing.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Les denied McFee’s inference that the Rosebank development plan was intended to avoid scrutiny by the ALC.

“I have never consciously set out to skirt around any rules or regulations,” he said.

The Rosebank development plan was “similar to many others over the years, none of which were required to be submitted to the land commission,” Les said.

“I don’t think being pro-development is a pejorative term,” Les added, pointing out that the city’s debt was paid off through new development at the time, and “major improvements” were made to community infrastructure.

“I’m proud of everything we achieved in my time as mayor,” he said.

The Chilliwack MLA voluntarily resigned his position as B.C.’s Solicitor General in 2008 when he learned of the police investigation into his business affairs during his tenure as mayor.

After a three-year investigation, McFee found no evidence to suggest wrong-doing by Les, but found grounds to charge Sanborn with three counts of breach of trust by a public official.

But in court Tuesday, McFee noted in Sanborn’s favor that a study by the ALC of subdivision approvals in Chilliwack, undertaken after news of the police investigation broke in 2008, showed that 66 of 213 subdivision approvals over an 18-year period from 1981 to 2009 were “inconsistent” with ALC rules.

Sanborn was the city’s approving officer for only part of that time, from 1989 to 2000, McFee said.

Defense lawyer Jeff Campbell told the court that Sanborn believed he was acting in the best interests of the city and received no material benefit from the development approvals.

“Mr. Sanborn did not receive any benefits at all from these decisions,” he said. “He believed at the time he was acting in the best interest of the District (of Chilliwack).”

Campbell said the police investigation at city hall found a “culture of pro-development” under then-Mayor John Les was widespread and staff witnesses told police that bylaws “were meant to taken as guidelines, not the Bible” and that developments were approved “often at the expense of bylaws.”

However, Campbell said there was “no suggestion of improper influence” by the mayor and “no evidence to suggest any internal pressure.”

In the case of the Longthorn Creek development, Campbell said his client was not the only city staffer involved in the approval as there was a general, but mistaken, belief that in some cases a city bylaw could trump provincial setback regulations.

“This was not a case where Mr. Sanborn was acting on his own,” Campbell said.

He also noted that, at the time, there was ongoing conflict between the city and the ALC and environment ministry officials.

He said Sanborn left his position as the city’s planning director in 2000 with a severance package involving a “performance issue” unrelated to the charges before the court.

Last year, the Progress learned through a freedom of information request that the amount of the severance was $104,473.

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