What do you think? Should we aim for 8,821 new units in McTavish or 11,678?
By Paige Gibson
It was bright and early on September 22nd when your devoted correspondents arrived at municipal hall, ready for a day which promised to be full of deep dives, light touches and sensitive infill. Seven and a half hours later we emerged, haggard and shell-shocked, our gluteus muscles and rural sensibilities numbed from hours of unrelenting pressure. We lived to tell the tale, but it was at times a close call.
We’ve warned you in previous articles that you’re in for a crushing read, but this might be the most crushing of all. (The good news is, you don’t have to watch a 7.5 hour council meeting!)
So, what happened in there? We laughed, we cried, we took a lot of notes. But before I get to the summary, I thought I'd bring your attention to a document that gives a whole lot of context to the entire OCP review: the Zoning Capacity Map, which the municipality quietly released shortly before the September 22 meeting.
Enthusiastic consumers of municipal literature may be aware that there are currently 5,408 units of housing in North Saanich. You are probably sitting in one right now! The Zoning Capacity Map reflects the units which could be built in North Saanich under the current zoning, if folks felt so inclined. The number? Four thousand, four hundred and nine. That's right, we could build 4,409 units of housing right now. If every guest cottage, carriage house, secondary suite and detached house currently allowed in North Saanich were built, the number of housing units in our municipality would almost double. Here’s the break down:
(Can't read the details of that map? Neither can I. But it appears to be the best we've got. None of the maps from the Sept. 22 meeting appear to have been released in zoom-able format.)
The great thing is that the number of these units that are actually being built is increasing organically, according to the needs of residents of North Saanich. Secondary suites and guest cottages are being constructed for children, grandparents or live-in caregivers. This is the sort of density that works: gradual increases in dwelling units, built by residents as the need arises in their lives.
As you can see from the numbers above, the vast majority of these potential units are secondary suites and guest cottage/carriage houses. And wouldn’t you know it, these are exactly the housing forms that provide the one and two-bedroom units that we are told are the most “pressing need” to be supplied by our municipality.
You may recall that the number of new units we will “need” over the next 17 years was identified in the Housing Needs Assessment Report. That report claimed that North Saanich will “need” 877 new units of housing by 2038. (There are some significant problems in the methodology of that report, which you can read about under “Misconception #4”, here.)
Those awkward facts aside, even if we accept the “need” identified in the Housing Needs Assessment Report, 877 units is a whole lot less than the 4,409 of unrealized units we have zoned in this municipality already. One could not be faulted for wondering why we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to plan for a bunch of density that, even according to the Project Team’s own figures, we’ve already zoned for.
With that brief and disturbing backgrounder, let’s get to the meeting.
Council made some good decisions at the meeting. Not nearly enough of them, but certainly enough to warrant a strong mention. In particular, this writer was glad to see council:
direct staff to remove Dean Park Estates from consideration for “sensitive infill” housing
significantly reduce the area under consideration for the “Deep Cove hub"
remove the possibility of housing behind Panorama
request that the agricultural and blue/green network concepts be significantly fleshed out.
And there were other positive things:
We have now laid eyes on representatives of Modus – the Vancouver consultancy who forms the non-staff half of the transcendent OCP Project Team – live and in the flesh. I can officially confirm that they have, in fact, set foot in North Saanich. It was like seeing movie stars!
Council seemed to generally acknowledge the fact that the OCP review process thus far has been a communications nightmare and that public confidence in the process is “strained”.
There was a general push for a reduction in the nonsense planning-speak used in the OCP process as a whole (wouldn’t it be wonderful if “light touch housing” and “sensitive infill” were permanently removed from the municipal lexicon?) None of this seems to have actually taken hold of course but, by golly, they tried.
Firstly, let’s clarify that these proposals are still in the discussion phase. They’re just “on the table”. Council insists that they remain open to feedback. There is, they will assure you, nothing to worry about!
Except that the train is still rolling down the Development Line, and seems to be gathering speed. To wit, the options that council voted to bring to the community for discussion are “OCP designation for thousands of new units of housing” or “OCP designation for even more thousands of new units of housing”.
(An honourable mention goes here to Coun. McClintock, who fought in vain to have a “status quo” option brought to the public for discussion. Like so many reasonable ideas regarding the OCP, it disappeared into the ether.)
On to the specifics:
Build build build!
Council was presented with two “Land Use Options” that the Project Team recommended taking out to the community for comment. They are Land Use Option 1:
And Land Use Option 2:
Yes, you are reading that right – the conversation that Council decided to bring to the public is whether to draft the OCP to designate for 11,678 new units of housing, or 8,821.
(Please note that the first number includes blanket infill in Dean Park Estates, which Council removed. There are 782 houses in Dean Park Estates so by my math, removing those from the calculation, the "Option 1" number is more accurately 10,896 new units.)
The consultants spent a good chunk of time weaving a mesmerizing tale about “realization rates”. This is the way that developers the world over convince elected officials to zone for way more density than they’re comfortable with: they simply assure them, ad nauseum, that most of this won’t even get built. (I am told that the reason they can make these assurances with such amazing certainty is that all urban planning firms have genuine, functioning crystal balls. Seems like a strange use for them, but what do I know.)
After consulting their supernatural instruments, the consultants told us that if council approves designating 11,678 new units, only 1,366 will appear. Similarly, designating for 8,821 new units will result in a paltry 1,205 in reality. Nothing to worry about! Except that, even if those are the numbers that are ultimately built, they represent at least a 27% increase to the total number of homes currently in North Saanich, and significantly overshoot the “housing need” of 877 units (which itself is arguably overshot, and is in any event fully possible under our current zoning designations!)
A dense and intense “McTavish Village”
“What the heck is McTavish Village?” you may ask. And that’s a very important question, because it is a planning concoction that covers a lot more turf than one might think.
As far as I can tell (and it's tricky to tell from the slide presentation, so I really encourage everyone to verify my geography by looking at the slides themselves) McTavish Village includes the area between the highway roundabouts and East Saanich Road, bordered by McTavish and Canora, and also the Terraces. In other words, all of the properties from East Saanich Road down to the highway - even to the ocean in some spots - from the airport roundabout all the way up to the municipality’s southern edge (a location roughly known by most of us as “where you go past the field with the cows on the way to Saanichton”), with a few chunks out here and there. It also includes all the houses between Dean Park Estates and East Saanich Road. Here is a map:
Given the motions that Council made at the Sept 22 meeting, this map is not quite correct. Lower Dean Park will also be included in the Wild West of Municipal Planning, which brings me to.....
Bad news for lower Dean Park
Initially, Council was going to remove all of Dean Park – that is, the entire area west of East Saanich Road – from the “McTavish Village” proposals. But Coun. Gartshore was not on board with that, and wanted the properties on the west side of East Saanich which are not part of Dean Park Estates to be included. (From my own map-squinting, this would include the lower portion of Barrett Drive, most of Sandover Crescent, lower Dean Park Road, Llewellyn Place, Griggs, Chinook, parts of Pender Park, Lowe, and a few other streets.) Council acquiesced, so these areas are now in the mix when deciding where the thousands of townhouses, apartments, infill and “cluster housing” might be slated to go
Those of us in the peanut gallery were admittedly a bit agog after seeing the numbers outlined for the McTavish area, but the fun didn’t stop there. We learned a few other interesting things as well.
Big news for two lucky property owners
Council decided to notionally nix all of the development that had been proposed for Deep Cove (band shell, we hardly knew thee) with the exception of two properties – one on the north side of the Deep Cove Market and the other on the south side of the Co-Op gas station. The mayor made some noises about including “the whole block”, but we weren’t quite sure what to make of that, and ultimately the motion only included the two properties. It was clear there will be room to expand the Deep Cove development zone, but that’s it for now.
So, do you live at 10910 or 10974 West Saanich Road? If so, you’ve won a prize! The District will be considering mixed-use designation for your property. The slide presentation provided a definition:
Doing the math, these two lots could yield 88 new units of housing where there are currently.....two. And don’t forget the commercial bits - what do you think, retail? Offices? (Incidentally, where do they think all these people are going to park? Strip mall style out front? Big ol’ impermeable asphalt lot around back, right up against the ALR?)
I'm not sure when the District was going to let these property owners know that they each make up one-half of the Deep Cove Hub. I hope I haven’t ruined any surprise parties.
An important note, which will no doubt be mentioned repeatedly in the coming months: OCP designations do not mean that property owners need to do anything. No need to rezone. They can keep their properties as they are. (Whether they can afford to pay property taxes that are assessed based on the “highest and best use” of their property is another discussion. Sometimes there are unfortunate consequences to OCP designations, whether the zoning has been changed or not. Commenting on a 361% increase in a North Vancouver home’s assessed value, “B.C. Assessment said recent changes to the district's Official Community Plan changed everything — and even though the 19,500 square-foot property hasn't been rezoned and redeveloped, it could be.” You can read more about this here under “Misconception #1”.)
Council moved Deep Cove in the right direction by removing most of the previously proposed density. But we’re still looking down the barrel of 4.35 acres of “mixed-use” butting up against ALR land. But you know, according to the Project Team......
The best thing for farms is condos!
When the issue of buffer zones between farmland and density was brought up, we heard from the consultant that, actually, the ideal housing to place adjacent to farmland is apartment buildings. This is because apartment dwellers are used to lots of noise, you see, and so are less likely to complain about farm noise. Anyone doing any actual farming would point out that covering a neighbouring lot with asphalt and throwing up a four-storey structure would cause an awful lot of problems, including but certainly not exclusive to drainage, runoff, and light blockage. The ALC, which was implicated as the source for this insane assertion, confirmed to me that they do indeed receive fewer complaints from apartment dwellers next to farmland, as compared to single family home owners. Apartment buildings are better in terms of minimizing complaints from neighbouring properties. But they are certainly not better for the actual farmland. The assertion that fewer complaints about agriculture equals better land use planning is complete nonsense and yet another unfortunate example of prioritizing the concerns of new developments over the protection of existing farmland.
Wherefore art thou, Post-It Notes?
It also emerged as time ticked by that Council has still not seen the comments from the pop-ups or the online engagement sessions. Instead, council saw a summary from the consultants, who had taken a count of comments and grouped them into “supportive”, “neutral” and “concerns”. There was no breakdown of how many of each type of comment was received on each concept. Bluntly, the summary was useless.
Will they see the Post-It Notes at all? Who knows! We wrote to ask, but apparently it has not been decided. We hear that a concerned citizen has made a request to see the comments, pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. We’re betting the infamous Post-Its are released publicly before the FOI is processed (it looks a lot better that way, and they’ve hired the PR horsepower to tell them as much). But on the off-chance they’re not, rest assured that you’ll hear whatever we hear.
A couple of councillors expressed annoyance that a number of people showed up at the pop-ups with “pre-loaded Post-It notes”. You may recall that we suggested this as a reasonable alternative to trying to scribble out a coherent sentence while balancing a post-it on your knee in the rain. Some of us (this correspondent included) were not able to attend a pop-up with enough time to write comments, and had to send spouses to stick their notes on. But apparently some members of council believe that scratching out comments in-person at the pop-ups was somehow fundamental to the validity of those comments. A strange ground for objection, but these are strange times.
The numbers say a lot
The consultants went through all of the correspondence that has been received by the District since the onset of the OCP review. Here’s how it looked:
If only an overwhelming majority of the correspondence, say 90%, was for or against, this would be such an easier.....oh, wait. (Keep writing, folks!)
Modus does not find us to be very helpful
Rob Barrs, Grand Poobah of Modus, commented that he “scratches his head” when he hears opposition to the OCP plans that have been presented. He insisted that “This was an anti-sprawl set of concepts with the very express purpose of strengthening community and protecting rural character.” All this density is to protect our rural community! Boy, do I feel silly.
Mr. Barrs was also irked that “there haven’t been a lot of positive suggestions from those who oppose”. It’s true: I don’t have any positive suggestions on where to stick those apartment buildings. But people who live here have been proposing realistic solutions from the get go.
Here are a few practical ideas that residents have shouted themselves hoarse on:
Redrafting the engagement plan so that the only “stakeholders” are local residents, businesses and first nations.
Procuring a Housing Needs Assessment Report that uses the newest available census data (the first bits will be available in November!) and which has a “Community Engagement” section that involves speaking to actual residents of North Saanich rather than the Urban Development Institute and the Victoria Residential Builders Association.
Pausing the OCP review until the most disruptive, internationally-destructive pandemic in modern history is behind us and we can all stand in the same room together without worrying about becoming mortally ill as a result.
Putting a stop to closed meetings in the OCP process. If a meeting stands to influence our decision makers, residents should all be allowed to hear what’s being said.
Many people have made these suggestions and a lot more, repeatedly over the past year. Presumably they’re just not the suggestions Mr. Barrs was looking for.
Don’t get me wrong, designating for over ten thousand new units is pretty darn ugly. But uglier still was the utter dismissal of opposing views, demonstrated starkly by Councillor Weisenberger.
Coun. Weisenberger, who lives in Sidney these days, was not shy about his belief that anyone who is opposed to the current direction of the OCP review is simply a victim of misinformation:
“A lot of those comments came from misinformation being spread around the community.... If you can confuse people enough,
you can get to where you want to get to with your communications”.
That’s right folks, if you don’t want the Urban Containment Boundary extended into North Saanich, you’ve simply been confused and befuddled by the siren song of the SaveNorthSaanich volunteers and other concerned community members.
Seriously though: this was an appalling statement from Coun. Weisenberger, and it wasn’t the only one he made along those lines. The folks who contribute to SNS are - and always have been - absolutely painstaking about fact-checking. (That’s why it took three weeks to get this article out!) We challenge anyone to find a shred of “misinformation” on this website. (No really – if you find something you don’t think is accurate, please let us know! We care about this sort of thing a lot!)
There have also been a number of comments from the Council bench lately about “perception”, along the lines of “I understand that this is the public perception, but here’s why it’s wrong”. This suggests that positions which do not fit into the speaker’s own perceptions must simply be incorrect, and reflects a similar dismissal of dissenting opinions. The thing is, no one gets to decide the “correct” perception of major changes to a municipality. If the goal is respectful discourse, this particular bit of political argot should be promptly retired.
It is almost heartbreaking to have to say this in Canada in the 21st century, but if someone does not agree with a local politician, it does not mean that they have been fed lies. If information is presented in the context of an editorial narrative that a councillor does not like, it does not render the information inaccurate. If residents tell their elected representatives that they don’t want apartment buildings in their neighbourhood, it does not mean they’re being manipulated by the forces of darkness.
Council talks a lot about respect and empathy these days. Both concepts work a lot better when it's a two-way street.
Cartoon: Clive Goddard
For further details of the September 22 meeting, and to review select comments made by both Council and the Project Team, we encourage you to read the excellent summary from the North Saanich Resident's Association, here.
YOUR NEXT OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD:
ONLINE COMMUNITY MEETING
OCTOBER 20, 7 PM
CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS!