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Rural B.C. mayors not eager to embrace new housing legislation

Communities concerned about provincial overreach, lack of local control
North Saanich Mayor Peter Jones, here seen shortly after assuming office, in 2022 has criticized what he calls a “province-wide, ‘one-size-fits-all,’ approach to increasing housing supply” (District of North Saanich/Submitted)

Many municipal leaders in B.C.’s large and mid-sizes communities have cheered the recent run of housing-related legislation.

The applause seems more muted, or even non-existent with their smaller cousins.

Take North Saanich. The Vancouver Island community of just under 12,000 lies just north of Victoria, but appears to be a world away from the urban issues including homelessness visible in the provincial capital. Historically rooted in agriculture, the community is now among the richest in Canada and frequently presents itself as a rural oasis, sometimes even as a sort of ecological refuge for the rest of the region, best left untouched.

This self-image, however, co-exists with competing calls for more housing and development, a tension that played itself out in a divisive Official Community Plan review leading up to the 2022 municipal election.

Forces wishing to restrain growth prevailed, so it is not surprising that North Saanich Mayor Peter Jones greets legislation promoting more density with skepticism.

“A province-wide, ‘one-size-fits-all,’ approach to increasing housing supply has been proposed without consultation with the residents and local governments impacted,” Jones said in a statement to Black Press Media. “North Saanich has requested the province to consider the differences between rural and urban communities and the availability of infrastructure in proposed policy, in addition to the significant impact on existing infrastructure capacity to service increased development and density.”

Jones’ statement also expresses concern “that broad legislative changes will impact the local planning authority vested in local governments,” a point also ringing through in the comments of Lumby Mayor Kevin Acton.

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Speaking with Black Press Media before winning the BC United nomination for Vernon-Lumby, Acton offered a comparable, but less diplomatic critique.

“My frustration isn’t as an MLA running for office, my frustration is as the mayor and our OCP plan and what it means for us to be ruled by a central government again,” he said. “(Communities) are supposed to have the freedom to build what they want for their citizens.”

Acton also expressed concern about costs associated with the legislation. Communities will compete for the expensive services of the few but necessary consultants to navigate the playing field he said.

Unlike North Saanich, Lumby finds itself below the population threshold for multi-density legislation on lots currently zoned for single-residential homes and duplexes (5,000), as well as below the population threshold for legislation restricting short-term rentals (10,000).

Communities can opt into legislation, but Acton said he does not foresee Lumby doing so.

“We already have all of this stuff in place,” he said. “But we did it through public process.”

Acton acknowledged the multi-density legislation could create more housing in his region’s largest community, Vernon, but that came with a caveat.

“I don’t think changing this bylaw is instantly going to produce a whole bunch of housing, certainly not in rural communities, that’s for sure,” he said.

If anything, smaller communities like Lumby could have been building more housing faster already, if the provincial government had not created roadblocks in permitting, Acton said.

Tofino Mayor Dan Law said his community has already up-zoned duplexes and townhouses to allow for secondary suites in anticipation of provincial legislation.

Tofino is also applying to the CHMC Housing Accelerator Fund to prioritize purpose-built rental and missing middle housing. Tofino is also looking at tertiary suites and pre-zoning for multi-family housing to deal with the housing crunch, Law said.

“So we are working pretty heavily on this,” Law said. “The community has made it clear in our (OCP) that the priority for any new rezoning is affordable and attainable housing first.”

Law added that he would take another look at the legislation allowing higher density on lots currently zoned for single-residential homes and duplexes and expressed support for provincial measures designed to speed up municipal processes.

“Our goal is to get more public input at the beginning of a development application, when it actually has a lot more efficacy than at the very end, when it can be an exercise in frustration for many.”

Law said he can empathize with mayors, councillors and staff who perhaps feel that they are losing decision-making powers, but also tried to ease their concerns.

“In the case of communities, that feel that there is an over-reach or who feel the pressure from government, the key is going to be in a very, very, significant, solid review of their (OCP) and their housing needs assessments,” Law said.

“That’s what the province is looking for. They (government) are looking for places (in those documents) where there is a goal for housing.”


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