North Saanich Councillor Craig Mearns agrees both sides of the debate over housing do not want to change the atmosphere and culture of their community and says what Monday night’s public hearing will do is add diversity without a drastic impact.
Mayor Alice Finall says it’s unrealistic to think that the housing developments proposed in North Saanich will not change the community in a significant way.
Mearns and the council majority, Dunstan Browne, Ted Daly and Conny McBride led the voting on seven bylaw and official community plan amendments which will allow increased residential housing density in specific locations within North Saanich. The result sent the large audience at the Bodine Hall at the Mary Winspear Centre into applause and cheering, as most of the crowd was clearly in support of the change.
Monday’s public hearing was well-attended and many speakers took to the microphone to express their opinions on council’s work to designate increased housing densities in two parts of the district — the Canora and Rideau road area and along McDonald Park Road. Both areas have development proposals pending, which could see the construction of up to 164 new units on lots smaller than what has been the norm in North Saanich. The hearing Monday night included phased development agreements for those projects. Council’s vote moved them closer to reality.
It’s a reality most of the people at the public hearing want to see happen. A majority of the speakers supported changes to the district’s regional context statement (RCS) and official community plan (OCP) as well as the development plans.
“Up to now, North Saanich has been exclusive,” Mearns said after the hearing. “The average selling price of the average house here is around $700,000, and that excludes people from the community.”
Some speakers Monday night, a few of them single parents who work in local industry, said they wanted homes that are more affordable than that.
“This housing can be affordable for workers,” said one speaker, an employee of Viking Air who recently bought a home at Canora Mews. “I grew up in Sidney and had to move away to afford property. Now, I was able to get a decent house because of the new development here.”
It’s this example that the council majority holds up as housing that’s more affordable in North Saanich — homes at a lower price point, not necessarily government subsidized housing, which Mearns said is a different issue.
“I’d like to see more affordable homes,” he said, “but we (the municipality) are part of the problem as we’re charging high amenity fees for these units.”
He added it’s a complicated situation, as the district has stated it wants developers to pay for their impact on local infrastructure.
Some of the speakers in support of the changes were involved directly or indirectly with development, including members of the Sidney North Saanich Industrial Group which has been urging Peninsula municipalities to find ways of accommodating cheaper housing for their employees — most of whom live in the Western Communities and commute to and from work.
Overall, supporters of the changes included a mix of residents and younger people who are looking for the opportunity to live close to where they grew up or work — or be able to stay in North Saanich as they grow older and can no longer take care of their properties.
Opponents included members of North Saanich Community Voices, who handed out information before the hearing and tried to mobilize their camp to support Finall and councillors Celia Stock and Elsie McMurphy (McMurphy was not at the hearing), who have been fighting spot rezoning and the subsequent push for OCP change to allow for increased density.
“This is a major turning point in the history of North Saainch,” said Springfield Harrison, a long-time critic of council.
He called for a full OCP review — a wish that Mearns said could be granted after the election, should the incumbents win back their seats in November.
“If our group were to get re-elected,” he said, “we would gave an OCP review. There are a number of issues that need to be dealt with.”
Mearns promised the public would be involved but the process would not take the four years the last OCP took to be created. He added the final decision on an OCP would be the hands of council.
Finall said she was pleased so many people attended the hearing, adding there was a lot of effort made to get people to attend.
“I think some people felt that there wasn’t much point,” she said.
Some speakers at the hearing — on both sides of the issue — asked whether councillors were open to changing their minds. That didn’t happen.
Browne said he listened to people but was unmoved.
“I have heard nothing that would convince me otherwise,” he said. “This has gone on for nearly all of the time this council term. It’s time to make a decision.”
Coun. Conny McBride added minds on both sides of the council table were made up years ago, in a debate that has gone on for much longer.
“It’s important for North Saanich to move forward,” she said. “It’s important to have a diverse community.”
Coun. Ted Daly said not everyone in North Saanich is against this kind of change.
“We were elected to do a job,” Daly said, noting the issue goes back 11 or 12 years and has not been rushed by this council or any other. “It took this council two-and-a-half years. What we are doing is making this a more inclusive community and I’m proud of that.”
Even Finall and the minority of councillors did not change their positions.
“I’m just not buying that any of these projects will lead to affordable or workforce housing,” the mayor said, indicating the lobbying efforts of local industrial businesses in recent years to seek housing for their many employees. “I continue to oppose this.”
Coun. Stock added she, too, remained opposed to the bylaw amendments.
“My reason hasn’t changed from the very beginning,” Stock said “I’m OK with some development, but this just feels like it’s too much.”
Both sides at the council table tried to use tallies of letters, emails and speakers to back up their positions, but Finall agreed little of that mattered in the end for it all came down to how council would vote.
“I don’t see this as a defeat,” she said when asked. “It was in the cards, probably from the beginning of this term.”
Finall added she fought for what people wanted her to fight for. Now, she said she feels like there will be more development proposals coming forward and will continue to impact the community.
Mearns said the two projects on the books will probably gain some traction after Monday’s public hearing but said other developments will take time. He added the two projects debated Monday probably won’t even break ground for some time. He added he doesn’t think others will come forward to council before the municipal election in November.
There are other proposals out there, he said. Including the two already on the books, there are a total of around 520 units being considered at the planning stages.