Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How changing a planning oddity in Saanich could speed up housing approvals

Mayor Dean Murdock hopes to change the district’s reputation for sluggish development.

By Shannon Waters
December 14, 2022
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How changing a planning oddity in Saanich could speed up housing approvals

Mayor Dean Murdock hopes to change the district’s reputation for sluggish development.

By Shannon Waters
Dec 14, 2022
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

How changing a planning oddity in Saanich could speed up housing approvals

Mayor Dean Murdock hopes to change the district’s reputation for sluggish development.

By Shannon Waters
December 14, 2022
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How changing a planning oddity in Saanich could speed up housing approvals
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

How do you solve a problem like the housing crisis?

It’s a “wicked problem,” as Victoria city councillors recently heard in a briefing from city staff—a challenge both in and of itself, and one that contributes to other problems plaguing communities—and it requires a multifaceted solution rather than a single-focus approach.

But from council tables to the provincial legislature, the need to speed up the process of building the kind of housing communities need comes up again and again.

In Saanich, Mayor Dean Murdock knows the district has a reputation for being slow to deal with development applications both large and small.

“We certainly have heard that those processes are not efficient, that there are ways that we can move through reviews and approvals much more efficiently,” Murdock told Capital Daily.

Saanich is working to implement a report outlining 15 recommendations to improve its approvals processes while the provincial government has already taken steps aimed at helping local governments speed up housing development.

Last fall, changes to the Local Government Act gave municipalities the option to let rezoning applications that align with their Official Community Plans go forward without a public hearing—a move that could significantly reduce the time projects have to wait to get approval.

But Saanich has not been able to take advantage of that mechanism because of an unusual quirk in its planning bylaw.

In Saanich, local area plans are incorporated into the OCP bylaw. But because some local area plans don’t match the OCP’s priorities on issues such as density or building height restrictions, the district can’t then interpret a particular development as being consistent with its OCP and push it past a public hearing.

“I think we are among the few municipalities in the province that does this,” Murdock said.

The district is trying to figure out if it is possible to update the OCP— a process currently underway and expected to be finished next year—in a way that recognizes that some of the local area plans are out of date and contrary to the goals of the OCP.

“We need to explore what decoupling would look like—that would certainly help us to move things forward,” he said.

Bold reforms face big hurdles
Aryze Developments’ Luke Mari appreciates that local politicians are keen to reform their development processes, especially when it comes to housing.

“It takes three, four, or five years to get a rental building with affordable housing through the system,” he said. “The process is very cumbersome, very challenging.”

Mari took to Twitter last week to illustrate just how complicated the process can be with a photo of a housing agreement for a single project.

The cumbersome and costly process can deter developers from proposing affordable housing projects. Even non-profit housing developers struggle with the time and money required to navigate municipal approvals processes.

“The process right now costs non-profit organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Greater Victoria Housing Society executive director Virginia Holden said in September at an event where she and other non-profit housing organizations called on local governments to get serious about addressing housing affordability.

But bold ideas to create more housing have a knack for drawing public pushback, which prompts politicians to back down on possible reforms more often than Mari would like.

“Everybody is trying to advance reforms and…everybody collectively agrees on cutting red tape,” Mari said. “But the second municipality moves in that direction, it’s ‘secrecy’…[or] it's ‘a giveaway to developers.’”

That’s familiar territory for Murdock.

“Across the board, people recognize that there is a need for more homes and creating homes that are affordable and attainable for families,” he said. “Of course, the challenge is always that it's suitable except in my backyard or in my neighbourhood.”

He believes public processes such as Saanich’s ongoing update to its OCP are a chance to signal to residents that “change is coming” and demonstrate why it’s needed. That could include changes to neighbourhood zoning to add different housing types and more density in certain areas—somewhat similar to Victoria’s Missing Middle Housing Initiative.

With a much larger land base to consider, Saanich is looking to focus density in the core of certain neighbourhoods and along connecting corridors with the goal of creating community hubs that make it practical for residents to walk to work, school, and services.

The vision is more housing near amenities and transit.

“This is going to mean that more families can settle in our neighbourhoods, that we're going to build homes that are suitable for older adults who want to downsize in the neighbourhoods where they built their life, that Saanich is going to be a place where everyone is able to find a home, regardless of their income or stage of life,” Murdock said. “Part of that is going to mean change to existing neighbourhoods.”

Once the OCP and neighbourhood plans are approved, Murdock believes Saanich will be ready to take the next big step: pre-zoning land, similar to Victoria’s Missing Middle proposal, to reflect the approved priorities. Developments that fit those priorities would then be relatively quick and easy to build.

“Then a developer is just seeking a development permit—we're really fast forwarding the process about 18 months because there is no need for rezoning,” he said.

Eliminating rezoning would be a bold reform of the kind Mari hopes to see more local governments willing to take action on.

“The housing crisis is such an acute and aggressive crisis; why do we think that any of the cures are not going to be equally aggressive?” Mari said.

Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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