By Alice Finall, former long-time Mayor of North Saanich
Eds.: We are very thankful to Alice for taking the time to write this important historical perspective on OCPs in this municipality. We expect the next few weeks to be eventful. If you like what you're reading, please consider donating to the cause.
Important background facts
Developed and issued by the Capital Regional District (CRD), the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS), is “a vision for the future of the capital region, guiding decisions on regional issues such as transportation, population growth and settlement patterns.”
The current Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) was adopted in March, 2018 after no less than 12 years of review, public consultation and, finally, a three-day mediation. Among its primary objectives is keeping urban settlement compact and protecting the integrity of rural communities. The RGS characterizes North Saanich as a rural, rural/residential municipality.
The RGS also designates a specific area in the Capital Regional District to accommodate new regional growth. Known as the Urban Containment Policy Area (UCPA), it consists of the core CRD municipalities - Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, Oak Bay, View Royal – along with the West Shore and Sidney – and is contained within a border called the Urban Containment Boundary (UCB).
(Had enough initials yet?)
Happily, North Saanich is outside the Urban Containment Policy Area, and on the safe, rural side of the Urban Containment Boundary. Out here, the RGS’s provisions for “Complete Communities” specifically don’t apply. (And so the District’s OCP Project Team now promotes “Healthy Communities,” instead.)
Still, the overarching intention of the Regional Growth Strategy is to reduce development pressures on the Saanich Peninsula and other rural areas “to ensure that they remain strongly rooted in the agricultural…land base”. . . allowing the rural countryside and natural landscape to remain as a durable fact of life in the Capital Region”.
As a Rural/Rural Residential municipality, North Saanich is part of a regional plan that recognizes and supports the regional benefits North Saanich provides. The people of North Saanich are stewards of important resources: the agricultural lands that feed us, the trees that provide oxygen for us to breathe and mitigate the effects of climate change, the parks that enrich and restore our spirits, the marine ecosystems that provide food, carbon storage, recreational opportunities and spiritual nourishment.
Those resources have no voice. They rely on us to speak for them, to protect and enhance them, for the good of our community and all of the region. There are few municipalities in the region able to continue providing these essential benefits. The people of North Saanich have a clear, historical record of protecting these values and resisting continual development pressures.
History of Development Pressures
The 2003 Regional Growth Strategy document contains the following statement:
“Situated at the northerly tip of the Saanich Peninsula approximately 27 kilometres north of downtown Victoria, the District of North Saanich is a collection of coastal focused neighbourhoods which surround agricultural lands. The community’s long term development plans are based on the desire of residents to retain rural character and safeguard environmental qualities. External demands for housing growth are not accommodated. The District’s policies reflect a strong commitment to preserve the agricultural land base and agricultural activities in the municipality.”
In 2006, during the review of our current OCP, a draft North Saanich OCP contained a provision for 4 "Village Centres": including one at the corner of McTavish and East Saanich Roads, another at the corner of Wain and West Saanich. Over 850 people attended a Public Meeting with Council to express their strong opposition, filing a petition signed by over 1100 residents. The provision for village centres was subsequently removed from the current OCP.
More recent Council density initiatives
During the 2011 to 2014 Council term the District was subjected to drastic changes by a council majority pursuing increased urban density:
Seven motions to create an Affordable Housing Policy were voted down by four pro-development councillors. Local developers, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sidney North Saanich Industrial Group also opposed an Affordable Housing Policy.
Three urban density developments were approved, falsely touting ‘affordability’, becoming Canora Mews, Eaglehurst (built on farmland), and Regatta Park, none of which are affordable by any definition. Eaglehurst homes were promoted at planning stage to sell at $425,000 but actual prices started at $800,000 and rose to $1.2-million
“Areas 1 (McTavish) & 2 (McDonald Park/Tsehum)” were established to accommodate future urban densities.
87% of over 400 citizen submissions to Council and to the CRD were opposed to these changes. Approximately 400 residents attended the public hearing, most to speak in opposition. The bylaw allowing the proposed densities passed 4-3.
The incumbent councillors who supported the increased densities were roundly rejected at the 2014 election.
Efforts toward Affordability
Achieving genuinely affordable housing requires complete subsidization in one form or another, usually through a combination of funding sources. Contributions by other levels of government, efforts by non-government, usually charitable bodies, and philanthropic efforts all add to the mix. Due to the character of our community, North Saanich cannot play an extensive role in this effort. However, through a number of years, North Saanich has approved 109 truly affordable housing units, a significant number for a municipality of this size.
These address a variety of needs: family rentals and progressive family purchases, seniors housing and other special needs. Except for the upzoning granted for the ten Habitat for Humanity units, these all have been achieved without broad fundamental changes to our OCP and zoning bylaw. The provisions of the Local Government Act in Sections 472 and 473 provide for this type of localized special density increase for affordable and special needs, which includes senior housing needs.
Over the past 16 years North Saanich has contributed over $500,000 to the Regional Housing Trust Fund, established to increase affordable housing in the region, and was one of the first regional municipalities to participate in this initiative.
The 2014 – 2018 Council made ongoing efforts toward addressing housing affordability. It resolved to allow:
Secondary suites in almost all areas of North Saanich except where inhibited by geographic conditions. This type of initiative is recognized by housing experts as one of the most effective and extensive ways to provide affordable accommodation.
Guest cottages on lots 1 acre and over in size, making North Saanich one of the first municipalities in BC to do so.
These bylaws potentially allow for over 4000 secondary suites and over 3000 guest cottages, if fully built out. Then in 2018, Council resolved that all future density housing in Areas 1 and 2 must be 100% affordable.
North Saanich has no documented need of additional market housing nor for changes in zoning to expand the supply. Extensive new housing and construction pursued by the 2011 – 2014 Council show a rate of market construction well beyond the projected growth of our community for years to come. Zoning already in place under the terms of the 2007 OCP, before the inclusion of Densification Areas 1 & 2, provides for possible new market construction more than adequate to the future needs of our municipality.
There is no groundswell of community support that could justify the excessive focus by the Project Team (PT) on increasing housing density in North Saanich; in fact, the reverse is true.
Progress of OCP Review
In 2020, North Saanich Staff interviewed and engaged Modus Consultants to conduct an OCP Review, and Modus personnel joined District planning staff to comprise the Project Team. The Project Team holds line responsibility – that is, does the actual work – of the OCP Review, devising and implementing the forms of engagement, and, at least theoretically, using the information thereby obtained to develop the concepts and plans for OCP.
In the case of North Saanich, the Project Team determined it was important to engage far beyond the borders and the residents of the District, inviting an unprecedentedly wide array of individuals and organizations – including developers and the Urban Development Institute – to participate. “Future Residents” were perhaps the most startling additional interviewees, defined as people who might want to move to North Saanich within the next 20 years.
The Project Team's first residential survey showed that most respondents rated Environment and Natural Spaces, Agriculture and Food Security, Climate Change, and Marine and Foreshore as their top four priorities. Housing was fifth.
Nevertheless, from the beginning of the process, increasing residential density has been – and continues to be - the overarching focus of the OCP Review, on the page of the District website and of all ensuing workshops and engagements. Some actions with this focus have been the invitation of developers to a working session closed to the public, and a solicitation of the participation of the Urban Development Institute.
In May 2021, the North Saanich Residents Association (NSRA), responding to concerns expressed in the community that the consultation had a strong development bias, conducted their own survey, open to anyone to participate. Their full survey, its design, integrity, promotion, results, etc. can be found here. In brief:
Their results show a general support for our current OCP vision with 83% “Strongly Agreeing” or “Agreeing” with this statement: “North Saanich should limit housing to sites allowed in the current OCP, with emphasis on the Secondary Suite program and allowance for Guest Cottages. Addressing housing needs in this manner allows for retention of our rural environment, has low environmental impacts and can be integrated into neighbourhoods.”
Only 17% “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” with this statement: “North Saanich should supply a range of services, amenities and housing options similar to those of other nearby municipalities.
Throughout the region, the core municipalities and Sidney are increasing residential densities at an unprecedented rate; Colwood, for example, intends to build some three thousand new units on its border with Metchosin in the next several years.
These initiatives are ignoring transportation, policing, medical care, water and all sorts of other community infrastructure needs for both the immediate and long term future. And they are making the need for protection of rural communities more acute.
The amount of ALR land remaining in the region is only 5.6% of the Growth Management Area, diminishing from 12,085 hectares in 1974 to 10,624 hectares in 2007 and increasingly at risk. This whole region is truly and increasingly a region on the edge.
There is no strong identified community demand pressing Council and the Project Team to be taking this direction. Council needs to reconsider the entire process and its timing. It is manifestly unfair to our residents to be proceeding through the constraints and anxieties of the pandemic and before the population information available from the 2021 Census can be accessed.