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Kelowna lays roadside memorial debate to rest

Kelowna politicians decided Monday to dismiss a suggestion to stamp roadside memorials with an expiry date, silencing the emotional debate on whether they’re eyesores that should be removed or harmless representations of grief.

"There were concerns they caused a visual problem, which we've seen from the report is not the case," said Coun. Charlie Hodge, after being run through a new city document suggesting a two year lifespan for markers.

"Some thought they were left to be unattractive, (which is not the case.) So if we have dealt with these things, then why do we have two year time limit?"

The discussion around roadside memorials came to the fore last fall after city council received a letter from an area resident who complained the memorials were unsightly and possibly hazardous to other drivers. While she acknowledged the emotional nature of the markers, she thought Kelowna should enact a policy akin to that of the city's of Calgary's, where uniform plaques replace personal memorials after a set time frame.

That letter triggered a community outcry, and the city was prompted to look into best practices and come up with policy around the issue.

Ultimately they endorsed a recommendation that would only cap memorials if they present a hazard, encroach onto the paved portion of the roadway or cause sightline obstructions or distractions to motorists.

It's a list of recommendations that changes little, which one former Kelowna resident feels is the best.

"I understand that for some people they may be an 'eyesore,' but for others they are a meaningful testament to the life of a friend or loved one," said Connor Vander Zalm, who a few years ago joined friends in erecting a marker where their friend, Andrew Walker, died in an accident.

"For those who are touched by such accidents that call for a roadside memorial, the displays can serve as a reminder of the realities and consequences of risk taking and everyday actions."

Over the years since Walker's 2009 death, the Spiers Road memorial Vander Zalm and his friends built also acted as a way to work through the grief.

Walker, 21, died suddenly, after riding a skateboard while holding onto a moving vehicle. He fell, suffering fatal injuries to his upper body and head.

"This was a huge experience for all of us, and none of us knew what to do or how to act, so keeping busy really helped us deal with the destruction," he explained.

"We kept busy and felt like we were doing something positive for ourselves, the parents and others."

The memorial they built, with the permission of neighbours, is far more well developed than most.

Snowboards, concrete and paint that's lasted the test of time have allowed it to hold up well, and it's still a gathering place for Walker's loved ones.

"I know my sister goes to it once in awhile, and another friend goes there a lot,” he said. “When I'm back home, I have two options to drive, and I choose to go by, because it makes me feel good."

A recent turn of events has also reinforced the decision from years earlier. On a trip with a friend to Ontario, Walker walked by a roadside memorial and it caught the pair’s attention.

"(My friend) stopped and looked at it, to read and see what it was about," he said.

"He had no idea who it was about, but he took the time to read it and pay attention, which reminded me of ours and made me feel good.”

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