Oak Bay's desire for revitalization clashes with neighbourhood opposed to a 4-storey apartment
The mayor favours more development, but community opposition to church's project is fierce
The list of B.C. municipalities with at least 5,000 people that have fewer residents today than a half-century ago is a who's who of resource-dependent towns in far-flung locations: Dawson Creek, Powell River, Port Alberni, Prince Rupert, Trail and Kitimat.
And also a well-educated seaside village right next to Victoria, where the median family income is 42 per cent higher than the rest of the province.
Oak Bay's new mayor, Kevin Murdoch, says the city must grow to tackle the problems of an aging population, aging infrastructure and aging stock of affordable housing.
"It's not sustainable," Murdoch says, after an election where he campaigned on streamlining the slow and sometimes byzantine set of regulations that has made redevelopment a difficult process.
In a municipality with more golf courses (three) than gas stations (zero), and where a proposal to legalize the city's secondary suites is now in its third year with no end in sight, the idea of significant rezoning change could be scoffed at, yet Murdoch is optimistic.
"We just need to find housing options that are appropriate for families and allow people to move within the community from single-family homes into apartments or townhouses," he said.
The process of overhauling the city's bylaws will take three years, said the mayor. But a contentious debate in council will come much sooner than that.
Battle over proposed rental units
At issue is a proposed 96 units of purpose-built rental housing by the Oak Bay United Church. It would be on the land it owns adjacent to the church, with most units priced below market rates, with a plan formally submitted in August 2018.
Nearly every nearby home has signs out opposing the project, arguing it doesn't fit the neighbourhood.
"We're parents. We understand what young people and seniors can face in terms of today's housing market," said former mayor Diana Butler, a member of the group Concerned Citizens of Oak Bay, created to oppose the project.
"So we're sympathetic to that. It's not an affordable housing issue for us. It's a land-use issue."
Butler said the proposed apartment block would set a precedent, causing a domino effect on the street, possibly spurring other similar developments.
The group said it hopes the church will "find something that works for the church and works for us ... so it's a win-win for everyone."
But a conversation with Cheryl Thomas, chair of the church's development committee, shows how unlikely that is.
"There is a small committed group of people in Oak Bay that don't want change and they think Oak Bay should just stay the way it is," she said. "If a church can't do this and provide something like this that's needed in the community, I don't see it happening in Oak Bay. Period."
No promises from mayor
Murdoch, the mayor, wouldn't say how he will vote on the project, saying he wants to wait to see the details when staff bring the submitted proposal to council. But he said the protracted debate over the building shows why Oak Bay needs clearer development guidelines for the entire city going forward, so residents have clear expectations of what can and can't be built.
Councillor Andrew Appleton said he's confident that process will result in Oak Bay growing its population while preserving the heritage dear to so many residents.
"Obviously there's this sort of abiding vision of Oak Bay as being a very conservative and slow to change, and I think people would be surprised [at] just how interested people are new development and adding some housing mix," he said.
"People's abiding opinion of Oak Bay, I think in a lot of cases, is not where we're at right today."
But when the United Church proposal comes to council as expected by the end of this year, it will provide a test of how committed Murdoch is to his rhetoric.
Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.