Faced with development pressures the likes of which the municipality hasn’t had before, the District of North Saanich is in the process of creating a policy that would have builders contribute to the upkeep of local infrastructure.
Called an amenities policy, it is not yet complete and how it’s being applied at this stage to individual rezoning and housing development applications, is rasing concerns in the community.
Reacting to a staff report outlining the district’s request for an amenities contribution of $16,500 for a proposed lot subdivision — and the owner’s counter offer of $10,000 — some citizens wondered aloud whether the payment amounts to a bribe paid to the district to speed up the approval process.
Heather Gartshore spoke to council on Monday, Feb. 18, questioning the amounts on the table and asking where the numbers came from in the first place.
Springfield Harrison also wondered about the amenities contribution, which he said looked a lot like “a large cash payment to the district to further the application process.”
The implication was clearly made that some people in the audience at the meeting thought this payment amounted to something of a bribe — a charge council denied.
The district has few policies requiring developers or land owners to contribute to the ongoing maintenance or expansion of municipal infrastructure — or a payment sought when growth could have specific impacts on roads, water and sewer services or require additional park space. District director of financial services Theresa Flynn pointed out when lots are subdivided the owners are required to pay for a sewer connection.
An amenities policy, known as development cost charges (DCCs) in other jurisdictions, would levy a fee to have developers contribute to the municipality’s infrastructure reserve funds. Under typical DCC laws, the money cannot be used for anything else.
Mayor Alice Finall said the district has nothing like this in place. A policy in the works now is essentially playing catch-up with ongoing applications.
Councillor Ted Daly said the amenities package is being created to help pay for the impact of development.
“There needs to be some kind of fee,” he said. “I take offense at comments that this is bribery.”
Coun. Dunstan Browne urged residents to learn what an amenities package is, before they start calling it bribery.
Yet, Browne pointed out later that council really doesn’t know what it’s talking about, as the policy is not yet approved.
Despite this, Coun. Celia Stock said North Saanich needs the policy in place, noting there are four subdivision proposals on the books that will be asked for an amenities payment.
Yet, council isn’t sure what the amount should be and staff are saying they based the latest request for a fee of $16,500 on what the district charged to a larger development proposal.
The owner of a lot on Bourne Terrace, in turn, offered to pay $10,000, based on a suggestion by Director of Planning Mark Brodrick that a lower amount could be paid for compassionate reasons.
Brodrick added during the meeting that the amenities fee is flexible at this stage, because staff are still working out an appropriate rate. He said those who pay it now could receive a refund — or even be asked to pay more — once the policy is approved by council.
Council took exception to the fluctuating fee.
“I feel the policy has to apply equally to everybody,” said Stock. “There still needs to be work done on this.”
Council has been debating its amenities policy since last summer. Brodrick said he still could not offer a firm date when council would be able to review or approve a final version. Staff time, he noted, is stretched thin.
Coun. Elsie McMurphy noted that council and developers both need to know what the rules of the game are. She added she was embarrassed the Bourne Terrace property owner was offering to pay the District in order to continue the application process.
McMurphy suggested that council defer the matter until the policy is complete and an actual fee determined. This was rejected by a majority of council.
Daly recommended the District proceed with asking for a fee of $16,500, move the subdivision request forward in the process and look to repay the land owner should the final fee be less. This was passed, 4-3, by council.