Langford is nearly 30 years old and has only elected one mayor

Residents are now raising concerns about rapid development and the future of council

by Aaron Guillen
April 6, 2021

Langford is nearly 30 years old and has only elected one mayor

Residents are now raising concerns about rapid development and the future of council

by Aaron Guillen
Apr 6, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Langford is nearly 30 years old and has only elected one mayor

Residents are now raising concerns about rapid development and the future of council

by Aaron Guillen
April 6, 2021
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Langford is nearly 30 years old and has only elected one mayor
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

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Michelle van den Broek remembers the days when Millstream Road in Langford had nothing more than a garden nursery and a stoplight before the highway turnoff on Highway 1. 

Living on the same road for the past 25 years, van den Broek has seen her surroundings evolve into one of the fastest-growing communities in the province—complete with big box stores, provincial government offices, and a controversial resort community on Bear Mountain. Within the blink of an eye, the sleepy town has rapidly changed since it was known as “the Dogpatch” only three decades ago. 

She’s seeing that change manifest in her own neighbourhood. Of the 496 land development subdivision applications submitted in Langford last year—up from 188 the previous year—one sits directly behind van den Broek’s home. 

The rezoning of the Western Speedway lands, located at 2207 Millstream Road, will effectively add business or light industrial development to the site, plus a new neighbourhood, tacked right around the corner. The RS-2 rezoning, voted in on March 15, allows for two-family dwellings on site.

The Langford resident first found out about the rezoning of 2207 Millstream Road by a letter dropped at her doorstep in mid-February. After the first rezoning public hearing, van den Broek and her husband, Gordon, gathered more than 500 online signatures in opposition to the subdivision. The petition supported the idea that access to any new development should be considered through Millstream Road, a main artery road, to address traffic concerns. Notably, the Transportation Impact Assessment, which would have addressed the development’s effects on traffic, was not made publicly available. 

Van den Broek claims that around 90 residents phoned into the March 15 meeting to speak on the issue, but only 25 residents were called upon due to a confusing phone system.

“The whole process was so frustrating. It feels like they do not care or listen, and there is no due process,” she says. “This is such a beautiful gem up here; a new subdivision would change the dynamics. It seems like public opinion doesn't matter.”

By the end of the meeting, Langford council voted to move forward with rezoning, without any deliberation regarding the subdivision.

From the Dogpatch to ‘most livable city’

Langford and the neighbouring District of Highlands were incorporated within a year of one another, in late 1992 and 1993. But since then, they’ve taken vastly different approaches to development, with the former adopting a pro-growth strategy and the latter fighting to maintain the rural aspects of the municipality. 

After the incorporation of Metchosin, View Royal, and Colwood in the ’80s, the question was raised whether Langford and Highlands wanted to incorporate or potentially amalgamate. At the polls, both municipalities voted to incorporate, but not join each other. According to the city’s website, 70% of Highlanders favoured incorporation, while 80% voted against amalgamation. 

Since then, Highlands has taken pride in preserving its natural environment and a rural lifestyle for its residents. The municipality boasts that nearly 40% of its land area is protected as municipal, regional or provincial parkland. That protection has also meant the population has remained very low; 1,423 residents lived in the Highlands in 1996. Now, the population of more than 2,200 residents, represents 0.6 per cent of the CRD’s population.

Langford started small, too. But it ballooned in the ensuing years: according to 2020 figures, more than 44,000 people now call Langford home—a stark contrast to its humble beginnings with 14,000 at the time of incorporation in 1992. From 2019 to 2020 alone, the population grew by more than 2,000, nearly 5%. By 2026, the city projects to hit 56,000 residents. 

“There’s a lot to admire. You may not like how Langford does its business, which I don’t, but looking at the metrics, it’s been a remarkable story,” said Dr. David Black, an associate professor in the school of communication and culture at Royal Roads University. 

The municipality has only ever elected one mayor: in 1992, Jim London was mayor, but since being voted into office in 1993 at the start of Langford’s incorporation, Mayor Stew Young has been at the steering wheel, bringing economic growth to the little town that could. 

Rob Gillezeau, an assistant economics professor at the University of Victoria, pointed out that it’s tough to look at Langford under the microscope without taking the entire CRD region into consideration. He says that Greater Victoria has a strong local economy, as growth builds out from the downtown core. He says the boom in Langford is consistent with the growth you want to see from any suburb; he recalls growing up in Scarborough when it was a smaller city outside of the Greater Toronto Area. Now, the city, which lies around 25 km from the downtown core, is a bustling centre of growth. 

“People need places to live when there is a city centre. Langford and Sooke fit the role of fulfilling the strong desire to own single detached homes for those arriving in the area… there simply isn’t a way to build [single detached homes] in places like Oak Bay or Victoria—the only way is up.”

Langford also boasts an accumulated surplus of $504 million, compared with a budget of $97 million, according to their 2019 audited financial statements. Gillezeau says he’s impressed at how substantial the surplus is, in comparison to Victoria. For reference, the City of Victoria has an accumulated surplus of $741 million with an annual budget of $272 million, according to their 2019 audited financial statements

Langford has been known to grease the wheels for new developments. In an interview with Cascadia Report, Young said his council works to have all zoning regulation permits completed for businesses within three months. The city is also known to complete the second and third public hearings within the same council meeting, a time-saver that was in place for van den Broek’s case too. 

A blue-collar kid himself, Young’s success story is mirrored in Langford’s rise. After his father died, Young dropped out of Camosun College and started Alpine Group, a waste disposal company-turned-business-empire that started with a single garbage truck in 1984. Their first office stood where the Real Canadian Superstore is now located. Now, Alpine boasts over 32 divisions and several hundred employees across the province, including RV and boat sales, gravel and soil companies, limousine services, the Fountain Diner in the Langford Plaza, the Beacon Cafe in Sidney, and the Sidney Spit Ferry, to name a few.

In early March, Langford was given the title of most livable city in Canada for 2021, according to a report by a Canadian online insurance and financial comparison company. The score is determined by a variety of factors, including home price growth, scenery, nightlife, property taxes, proximity to commercial airports, and population growth. Premier John Horgan celebrated the designation in a tweet praising his riding.

“I may be biased, but I couldn't agree more with Langford at #1,” he wrote.

Development has been happening at breakneck speed in Langford for years. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Economically robust, politically immature 

If you define a city’s success by population growth, housing start-ups and having residents who make more than the provincial median income on average, then Langford’s got it, says Black. Yet, after nearly 30 years of incorporation, he says Langford is just arriving at an inflection point, politically speaking.

Black pointed out that Langford, like most Canadian cities, operates on what is called the ‘weak mayor system’, in which a mayor doesn’t have veto power or a lot of executive power. To get any initiatives completed, the mayor must look to council and get a majority on their side to accomplish any task. By contrast, in the United States, most municipal governments operate on the ‘strong mayor system’, where the mayor’s role sits outside of council. Mayors will have veto powers for budget decisions and can hire and fire like a CEO. 

But Langford is an exception to the normal role of the so-called weak mayor. Young told Cascadia Report that he tries to be the cheerleader on council. Coun. Denise Blackwell, who chairs the planning, zoning, and affordable housing committee, pointed out that the mayor has never questioned their decisions. Due to the amount of red tape that has been cut—evident with their latest amendment to lengthen sidewalk permits up to three years instead of one for storefronts to expand their operations—they are able to operate with impressive efficiency. But some say that comes at the expense of the deliberation councils are supposed to undertake.

“This council has been historically deferential to Mayor Young. They work in unison. There is no room for lively debate or disagreement.”

A number of the council are longtime incumbents. For example, Blackwell has been in office since the beginning of incorporation, while Coun. Norma Stewart is the only one currently on council that hasn’t served for more than three consecutive terms. 

Over the 28 years of Young’s leadership, there have been concerns raised about conflict of interest. During the 2014 election campaign, rookie candidates called the Neighbours of Langford, ran under the banner ‘Time For Change’. Among other arguments about the need for a fresh council, they said Young had a conflict of interest for Alpine being the only garden waste facility in town. They argued that there should be a public works yard instead. But Young responded that it wasn’t fair to make residents pay through taxation for a service they wouldn’t use and that anyone had the choice to run another waste facility in town. All the incumbents were voted in and the challenger slate was defeated. 

Neither Young nor his staff replied to requests for comment.

Five years later, Young was bought out of Alpine’s Vancouver Island waste division by GFL Environmental, an Ontario-based waste management company. While the price hasn’t been disclosed to the public, the sale doesn’t affect any Alpine Group operations anywhere else in BC. Meanwhile, Young’s son, Stew Jr., serves as General Manager in the region. With the backing of GFL, the company can now bid on larger government contracts across the Island.

Lately, concerns have arisen over the council’s lack of transparency. In late January, the Grumpy Taxpayers of Victoria filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsperson over the city prolonging the decision to livestream council meetings and the lack of ease to access financial disclosure documents online. Since then, the issue was taken to council and voted through—in fact, March 15 was the first meeting that was jointly livestreamed and audio archived for residents to view since the pandemic first began.

Similarly, council’s financial disclosure documents are accessible only by making an appointment to view in-person—no photos allowed, only a notepad and pen. Taxpayers can view the financial disclosures of mayor and council online for Victoria, Saanich, and even Vancouver, but not in Langford. When Capital Daily went to Langford City Hall to access the records, a clerk said they had only been viewed three times this year. By contrast, Victoria reports its disclosure webpage has been viewed 462 times.

“Not posting financial disclosures online or livestreaming isn’t required by any authority, but it is best practice,” says Black. “The public feels closed out right now and that’s not a good look. This problem of political immaturity isn’t only an issue for the mayor and council, it’s also on the people of Langford.”

Young has been acclaimed in four of his eight mayoral terms and spent only $6.02 on his last election campaign in 2018. During that election, he received 3,939 votes—83% of the vote—against opponent Robert Fraser. The city had by far the lowest voter turnout in that election cycle of any municipality on Vancouver Island, and the second-lowest among cities provincewide. 

“It’s going to be a curious development when Young leaves because it will leave a large vacuum,” Black says. “Part of the job of a mayor is to build political competence in his or her council. I worry about what the future holds for this council.”

Mayor Stew Young has been the only mayor elected since the city was incorporated. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Beyond the Colwood Crawl

Less than one in five Langford residents voted in the last municipal election. Colby Heddon was not among them.

Born and raised in Langford, the 24-year-old says she didn’t feel like there was anyone running worth voting for to bring any change to Langford. Heddon says she’s all for development, but not at the cost of losing valuable greenspace. 

She’s found a like-minded community in Langford Voters for Change, a Facebook group that acts as a municipal watchdog. The group was launched in February when leaders from various Langford petition groups, including the Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, Fairway Neighbours Unite, and Save Thetis Heights Neighborhood, decided that it was more important to address developments across Langford instead of one at a time. 

“It’s our way of being more proactive instead of reactive. We’re trying to make sure that developments across the board are looked at more closely and carefully worked through, instead of just rushed.”

Heddon was glad to hear live streaming would be introduced in mid-March and takes a sliver of credit; their group had been persistently phoning and emailing city hall, asking to invest in live streaming equipment to improve transparency. She says the goal for the growing group of more than 600 members is not to work against council, but rather keep them accountable for the decisions they make, with a priority on sustainable development. On the other hand, van den Broek, an active member of the Facebook group, says she knows of a few residents who are considering running for council in 2022.

She’s taken the strategy to collect as many emails from seniors in her Thetis Lake neighbourhood who don’t have Facebook and would miss out on the Langford Voters for Change page so she can grow community involvement in the coming months. She says she loves where she lives and doesn’t want to move, but would consider it if the value of her home starts depreciating.

Looking ahead, Gillezeau worries about how infrastructure chokepoints, such as the Colwood Crawl, will affect the region’s economic growth in the future. He says if there isn’t any importance placed on making transportation more efficient in the decades to come, fewer people will want to live on the Westshore if their jobs remain in the downtown core.

“It’s an enormous hindrance to be waiting in traffic for hours on end,” he says. “If we’ve got the Colwood Crawl already, what will the future look like? That’s money wasted sitting in cars commuting back and forth.” 

One of Langford’s biggest challenges will be embracing an elevated quality of life, adds Black—one that prioritizes significant amenities for people apart from only jobs, housing and recreation. He says it’s tough to make a city that people want to live in with current crime stats, a pro-growth development model that could be unsustainable, and not enough care for greenspaces. 

He credited the Pacific Maritime Centre as being an investment in the arts and a new dimension to Langford’s allure, just days before news broke that the Maritime Museum of BC would be pulling out of their memorandum of agreement that had been announced in February 2019. The museum board said in a press release that they are now looking for a new location in downtown Victoria near the harbour waterfront. This leaves the question as to how Langford will proceed with the performing arts centre and conference centre without the major investment of a museum. Capital Daily didn’t receive comment from city staff by time of publication.

“Langford is at a point where it’s beginning to define what its growth is all about,” Black says. “It’s entering a new stage of maturity. Wherever the city goes, it has a remarkable legacy. Langford was quick to pop up, but it won’t be the last of its kind.”

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Correction made at 12:30pm on April 6: Stew Young is the only mayor who has been elected since Langford was incorporated, but at the time of incorporation, Jim London was mayor. A previous version of this story said Young is the only mayor Langford has had.

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