Oak Bay rejection of housing project cited as province considers taking over approval powers

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The Greater Victoria community of Langford approved 1,741 new homes last year, Oak Bay gave a nod to just 27

It was just another mid-sized housing project on council’s agenda, but when Oak Bay, B.C. council rejected the 14-unit project in mid-March, he underscored for many why the province is preparing to step in and take away some of the licensing powers municipal governments have to approve housing construction.

British Columbia Housing Minister and Attorney General David Eby said the government plans to introduce legislative and regulatory changes this fall that could remove final decision-making authority for housing permit approvals from the local government.

“That’s why the province is stepping in – Minister David Eby says, come fall the hammer will fall,” said Kim Colpman, chief executive of Large & Co., the company that had proposed the Quest building at 2326 Oak. Bay Ave. The project has been ongoing since 2017. “I believe he thinks they’re not doing their job to get the houses on the market,” she said.

“The noise we’re hearing from the community isn’t really about this project, it’s about what’s going on in general in municipalities, especially in Oak Bay, regarding housing approvals and on the table for people buy in and get the housing crisis under control.”

In a statement provided to The Times Colonist, Eby singled out Oak Bay for change.

He said people are moving around the province at a level not seen in 30 years and municipalities need to look at their processes and decision-making to accommodate them.

“For a community like Oak Bay, meeting this challenge includes fundamental elements like ensuring secondary suites are legal and determining how and where to approve multi-family housing if proposals like [Large & Co’s Quest building] don’t leave,” he said. “Every city faces challenges, and provincially we also need to do our job to support rapid housing approvals. By working together, we can meet this challenge.

The region has tried to meet the increased demand. Last year, Greater Victoria’s homebuilding sector broke a 45-year-old homebuilding record with 4,809 new homes started. The old record was 4,439 set in 1976.

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association, said the numbers look good, but the area continues to climb out of a housing deficit and not enough to meet demand.

He also noted that some municipalities, like Oak Bay, are not doing their part.

“Housing needs reports, released last year, reveal challenges in Oak Bay, the Peninsula and other municipalities. Even nonprofits shy away from offering affordable housing projects in Oak Bay due to filibuster and high costs,” Edge said. “When it comes to the Peninsula, developers have to navigate three different sets of costly policies and regulations.”

The drivers of housing creation in the area are Langford and Victoria, which started 1,741 and 1,204 new homes respectively last year.

Oak Bay, by comparison, started 27, the lowest in the core – Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal and Oak Bay – by far. Esquimalt started 60 last year.

“Canada is the fastest growing G7 country, with plans to welcome 1.3 million new Canadians over the next three years, and that was before the urgency to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine,” Edge said. “We have a responsibility to provide housing, and many CRD municipalities are shirking that responsibility, while continuing to add fees and costs.”

Colpman’s biggest hurdle in Oak Bay wasn’t fees, but changing the goalposts, she said, noting that the company had changed the design of the building based on earlier feedback, but that didn’t still didn’t fit. The project has been approved by advisory committees and municipal staff, she said.

“We presented something that is consistent with their own policy and official community plan. So when you come to the table with basically what they asked for in their policy, and they say “no”, where do you go from there? ” she says.

The Oak Bay council was split over the project. Although most councilors liked the design and appearance of the building, some felt it was too big for the site or were concerned about traffic problems and noise from excavation and construction.

Com. Andrew Appleton, who wanted to move the project into open court, advised his colleagues to consider the need for housing in the area. “We are at a time when, as a community, we need to think very carefully about where the housing that the area so desperately needs comes from,” he said.

Appleton noted that the housing shortage is more severe than when the Quest proposal was first presented to council in 2017.

Com. Hazel Braithwaite, who presented the motion to reject the project, said it was too big. “I agree that we need housing, but I really [think] we have to consider how the housing fits into the community,” she said.

A number of councilors suggested the project be scaled down, perhaps to a small row of townhouses.

Colpman said all options are still on the table, but she noted the project is on Oak Bay Avenue and designated for multi-family. “It would be irresponsible in my opinion to put three townhouses there to house three families in multimillion-dollar townhouses,” Colpman said. “It’s a built-up city and we have to get creative with the land that becomes available.

“There aren’t many left. They can go crazy in Langford where they have room, but we don’t.

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