There will be no focus group interviews in North Saanich over the District’s controversial housing density regulations.
Instead, councillors have their hands full trying to decipher thorough — yet seemingly contradictory — results of a community phone and online survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs.
The results of the survey were presented in detail Tuesday and show what Ipsos spokesperson Kyle Braid said was a distinct divide in the community over allowing increased housing density in two areas of the District.
“There is no definitive answer (on the issue) for council,” Braid told North Saanich politicians at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The phone survey polled 300 people from throughout the District. Braid said this portion of the survey is considered by the company to be the most reliable and representative picture of public opinion. An online component saw 371 people respond.
The survey asked residents about North Saanich’s core community values and Official Community Plan (OCP), and on whether two areas given higher density capability under the previous council, was consistent with those values.
The issue arose in 2013 and 2014 when, under a split council, a controversial bylaw was enacted (Bylaw 1352) that established two places within the District where increased housing density — apartments, townhouses and small lot homes — could be built. They became known as Area 1 (McTavish Road) and Area 2 (McDonald Park Road at Tseyum Harbour).
The council, as well as much of the community, was split over whether to allow what amounted to increased residential housing development in those areas. The council majority at the time was considered pro-development by those who the other side considered anti-development. The divide created enough disfunction at the council table, leading to walkouts of meetings and even mediation behind closed doors to try to restore councillors’ working relationships.
In November 2014, the council majority, also known as Team North Saanich, were not re-elected and a contrary council majority put in its place. Since then, the council has explored ways to review or revoke the bylaw. They embarked on the survey to gauge the community’s stance and to help direct and change local policy.
The survey did not significantly clarify the issue for them.
Asked whether they thought the Bylaw 1352 was consistent with the District’s OCP, 48 per cent replied that it was — and 46 per cent said that it was not.
Another 44 per cent of respondents said the bylaw was consistent with the District’s OCP value of retaining a rural or agricultural atmosphere — while 51 per cent stated it was not.
The online respondents swung far more heavily towards the “is not consistent” camp.
“It’s an interesting result,” said Mayor Alice Finall, who was re-elected after fighting against Bylaw 1352.
Finall said a similar survey conducted in 2008 — also about community OCP values — had results nearly the same.
“It’s an interesting dynamic that has continued,” she said.
Councillor Geoff Orr added those numbers in the survey presented as “effectively neutral.” Braid agreed, saying the results in that area were statistically tied.
When people in the survey were asked how council should proceed — repeal the bylaw, keep it or change it — only 17 per cent said it should be repealed. Thirty-three per cent said there should be no action (allow it to proceed) and 47 per cent stated council should change it.
The online respondents were reasonably split on the latter two answers, but a majority (44 per cent) said the bylaw should be repealed.
Of the majority who said in the phone survey that the bylaw should be changed, 21 per cent noted there should be less density, 14 per cent sought more affordable housing and another 14 per cent said they didn’t know.
“The results show residents are supportive of a variety of housing types in Areas 1 and 2,” Braid said. “But a lot less support for three or four-storey apartment buildings.”
Finall said she was impressed by the respondents’ strong support for the values contained within the OCP, which was updated in 2007 after four years’ work.
Coun. Heather Gartshore said she was pleased with the survey results, adding the message to her was that the current OCP did not need a review.
Orr said the results appear to favour making changes to the bylaw. However, there was no clear consensus in the results on what favoured changes might be.
“It’s going to be a challenge to debate,” he said.
Even so, council voted to drop the promised focus group component of the community survey. Chief Administrative Officer Rob Buchan said he feels the survey results are clear and council had to ask themselves, “do you think you need focus groups to help flesh out what the next objectives will be?”
“No matter the outcome,” Finall continued, “council will want to debate and come up with outcomes. Based on the survey results, I’m not sure if focus groups will be able to add anything.”
Coun. Murray Weisenberger said what will happen in Areas 1 and 2 will “be a political decision, no matter what.’
“Yes, the community may be expecting to see the promised (focus groups),” he said, “yet I’m not sure what the District would get from them.”
Only Coun. Orr felt the focus groups should proceed, saying they could provide feedback on potential council decisions on changes to the areas. He even suggested council might explore local area plans (LAPs) for Areas 1 and 2, should council decide to keep allowing increased housing development there. Finall noted that even without focus groups right now, LAPs could be part of a later discussion.
Council will now look ahead to debating what to do with the survey results and how to apply the information within it to deliberations over how the District will proceed with changes to Bylaw 1352.
The initial survey report shows respondents’ thoughts on the OCP, housing growth, types of housing and a variety of related issues.
Finall said it’s now up to council to take the survey information and run with it.
Full results of the North Saanich community survey are available at the District’s website northsaanich.ca.