By Vern Faulkner
Saanich News,
April 24, 2002

Behind a plastic barrier fence, directly opposite the main entrance of the new Vancouver Island Technology Park (VITP), lay innocuous looking strips of gravel and grass.

But appearances are deceiving. Hidden from view, underneath the gravel and grass, is a technology that transformed a local plastics company and triggered an amendment to the zoning bylaw to allow for permeable paving systems.

The gravel and grass are integral parts of a revolutionary parking lot – revolutionary because the materials foster a water-permeable, durable surface that reduces pollution and stormwater damage to the environment.

The parking lot is the first of its kind in Greater Victoria, but recent adjustments to Saanich bylaws ensure that there will soon be more.

The surface permits water to trickle through and eventually filter into the ground rather than conventional impermeable parking lots where water drains off into a nearby storm sewer.

As a result, the new technology will thwart storm surges – or large amounts of water that accumulate in storm sewers after a heavy rainfall. In addition, the biology of the grass and bacteria in the soil underneath the new parking lot will help hasten the decomposition of organic compounds – primarily oil – that drip off the parked cars.

Joe Van Belleghem, development consultant for the VITP, says that along with the reduction in storm water runoff and pollution, the surface also has another benefit.

"It's a lot cooler to park on and that's a big benefit in urban environments," says Van Belleghem. "The heat impact of parking lots can have a huge impact on cities."

Saanich engineer Hugh McKay says there are still some wrinkles with the technology to get smoothed out .

"Permeable surfaces have been around for a while, but their effectiveness hasn't been fully evaluated in the past," explains McKay.

One drawback is the technology requires a water-permeable subsoil to be effective.

Developers of a subdivision that will be built the old allotment garden grounds on Gordon Head Road thought "about using pervious surfaces, but because of the layer of clay not that far underneath, it was decided that there wasn't enough drainage," explains McKay.

But there are plenty of other areas in Saanich that would be well suited for the new parking lot technology, he quickly adds.

Saanich has been progressive in regulating how large developments manage storm water runoff and McKay says that a recent bylaw change will give developers more opportunity to use permeable surfaces as part of their storm water management plans.

"Developers are looking at more innovative ways to deal with on-site drainage," says McKay.

Saanich Coun. Carol Pickup has been a brazen promoter of permeable surfaces since she first learned about the parking lot plans for VITP over a year ago.

"The cost (difference) is getting pretty close, as I understand it. If all things are equal and one (option) is more environmentally sensitive, I'm hoping people will consider that route," she ventures.

Changes to the bylaw will only help, says Pickup, who says the previous bylaw actually discouraged the use of permeable surfaces.

Saanich planner Russ Fuoco says that the VITP surface will undoubtably be heralded as a template for future developers.

"If somebody comes in, we can tell them to go look for themselves," says Fuoco. "I think it's a benefit to have a local example and it's going to spur other projects in the area."

The surfaces will be fully functional in about a month once the grass has fully taken root.