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North Saanich Stories part 1

I traveled up from my New York home to work with my father in Canada when I was 15, and much later, as a movie producer, I spent a dozen years bouncing between LA and Toronto, but I first landed in North Saanich on a film project in 2004.

We shot for three weeks at the burgundy-coloured heritage house just north of Kelset Elementary. Back then, the house was owned by Lisa Boehm, proprietor of The Superior restaurant downtown. Back then, it was light yellow.

Every day I’d drive up here from our hotel downtown. I saw the lakes on the left, the islands on the right. I walked on the beach in Coles Bay. One day I saw a deer.

Finally, I’d had enough. I called my wife in Los Angeles: “We live in a sewer,” I told her, “We have to move here.” Two years later, we did. I became a Canadian citizen as soon as Canada would have me. I’m all in here.

And I’ve since learned that many of my neighbours – the ones not actually born here - have had their own version of the same North Saanich experience: they came, they saw, they were swept away. And I believe that it was from that experience, and the determination to conserve it, that the District tradition of civic involvement and activism was borne.

We all know, after all, that such experiences – and the beautiful places that inspire them – are fragile things. We know, as well, that they make our hometown what it is.

And so we must also understand that places like North Saanich don’t readily lend themselves to “intensification,” “densification,” or “urbanization,” the three horsemen of the current land use apocalypse. Once subject to those tender mercies, the experience of places like North Saanich mostly just goes away.

Like so many people, I've seen this myself. I went to university in Los Angeles, where the San Fernando Valley was less than 10 miles from the campus of UCLA.

In 1950, the year of my birth, there were still 41,000 acres of orange groves in the San Fernando Valley. By the time I graduated, in 1971, less than 3000 acres were left. Last year, the last grower sold the last 14 acres to an historical foundation.

And yet – just as it does in Vancouver, Victoria and everywhere else – housing remains an urgent, overwhelming problem in Los Angeles. Even after paving paradise, they’re still in a state of perpetual crisis.

Because, the fact is that housing is a problem you simply can’t build your way out of; in the places people want to live, there’s never enough space.

And so, while I believe that North Saanich has a moral responsibility to contribute to the region, I also believe that the cost of that contribution cannot be the destruction of our way of life. We’ve seen this happen all over North America.

Because the developer-driven “growth” process, once begun, knows no end. Each step justifies the next: dense residential development engenders nearby commercial development, then, to prosper, that commerce needs more homes. The two-step repeats over and over, trampling the rural landscape, destroying what made the place beautiful in the first place.

And for what? Certainly not for affordable housing. Truth is, in most “affordable projects,” only 10-20% of the units are actually sold below market; in rental projects that affordability often expires after a few years. And then there are the projects publicly presented as affordable that, upon completion, soar in price; one such “affordable” project in North Saanich sold $1.2-million homes.

What comes of all of this is density without affordability. That and a developer’s payday.

And then there's this: Once "urbanization" comes to town, the people moving into it understandably demand the corresponding urban facilities – sidewalks, sewers, street lights, pristine municipal landscaping – that make their dense urban units livable. Inevitably, taxes go up. More market housing goes up. More stores are built. More units go up. Soon you’re selling your last 14 acres of oranges.

Finally, no matter what advertising tells you, fact is you really can’t “have it all.” You can’t be in two places at the same time. You can’t be and not be. And you can't build three and four story housing, and still "respect rural character." That’s a developer’s myth.

Truth is that, left to its own devices, once the development process gathers steam, some version of Langford is the inevitable result. It’s worthwhile to remember that 30 years ago, much of Langford looked just like North Saanich.

- Don Enright

For more on the Urban Containment Boundary and what it means, click here:

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