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Saanich OCP hearing brings concerned crowds to council

Public hearing on April 30 went on for almost six hours as residents aired concerns over local autonomy
Saanich resident Frank Nezil addresses council on his concerns about the new Official Community Plan on April 30. (Mark Page/News Staff)

Crowds spilled into the hallway at Saanich Municipal Hall on Tuesday (April 30) night as the district’s prioritization of speedy development struck a nerve with many local constituents.

The district council was holding a public hearing on the creation of its new Official Community Plan (OCP). It went on for almost six hours, with councillors hearing some drastically divergent views on what residents feel the future of Saanich should look like.

“Having voted for a number of you, I have been absolutely shocked and angered by the process,” Saanich resident Frank Nezil told councillors, referring to the creation of the new OCP. “There’s so many issues.”

The last speaker finished at 12:43 a.m. on May 1 and the hearing adjourned without debate or a vote on the OCP. Public comment did finish, and the hearing will reconvene on May 7. The OCP will be debated by council without any more public participation.

Pro-development advocates supporting the new OCP’s attempt to accelerate densification in the district were far outnumbered by those who are critical of attempts to wrest control of zoning and development from local neighbourhood groups, and instead centre that authority with district staff.

Councillors heard over and over how concerned people are that the new OCP will take away control from Local Area Plans (LAPs). Many of these people say the district is simply going on an ill-advised building spree that benefits developers at the expense of long-time residents.

Mather Yerrell, a Swan Lake area resident, accused councillors of colluding with developers to create this OCP.

“We have a developer-focused OCP, not a Saanich-resident-focused OCP,” he told the hearing.

The somewhat raucous crowd had to be admonished by the mayor several times to quiet down and to maintain an atmosphere where people were comfortable to express contrasting views.

What an OCP does

The OCP is a document that guides municipalities in future zoning decisions. It doesn’t set zoning bylaws precisely, but is supposed to be followed when those bylaws are created.

OCPs must be updated periodically, and Saanich’s is about 15 years old. A big difference this time around are new provincial rules aimed at spurring development that must be included in the plan. These rules require municipalities to allow for larger buildings to be built near transit hubs, and — even more controversially — that districts end the public hearing requirement for many zoning decisions.

It is this removal of local input that brought many of the attendees to the OCP public hearing, particularly the potential removal of LAPs from the main OCP.

Many attendees spoke of the leafy, quiet character of their neighbourhoods, and how under the new OCP large four, six or in some instances 18-storey buildings will be allowed next door to their homes.

The LAPs are local neighbourhood planning documents, created with local input on how people who live in those communities want to see development proceed. Previously, those local plans were included in the OCP, and therefore had the same force as the main OCP provisions.

In the new plan, the LAPs are separate and subordinate to the OCP.

The new OCP is explicit in this, with a section of the policy saying zoning decisions will “Defer to the OCP where there is an inconsistency in policy direction between the OCP and a Local Area Plan or Action Plan.”

Coun. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, wrote in an email to Black Press Media that because not all of the LAPs include the provincial changes, and because the OCP is the most up-to-date document, it made sense to not update all the LAPs and instead just give the OCP precedence if there is any conflict.

Not all councillors are for this change.

Just before the hearing, Coun. Nathalie Chambers expressed her concerns to Black Press Media.

“Decoupling the Local Area Plans from the OCP is devastating to me,” Chambers said. “They’re foundational to civic engagement.”

Not everyone was anti-development at the meeting, though. Some participants actually said the new OCP does not go far enough to encourage home-building in the district.

This new OCP would encourage development of larger buildings along major corridors and around transit hubs, but several attendees say these areas are not necessarily nice places to live, especially for families.

“I think all neighbourhoods should be building their fair share,” Mark Edwardson told the hearing via video-feed. “I think wealthy communities like Cadboro Bay Road or Mount Tolmie should see infill housing and apartment buildings.”

Whether or not any of this engagement translates into votes remains to be seen. Sasha Izard, one of the most vocal anti-OCP activists, ran for council in 2021 and lost. He told Black Press Media outside the hearing he plans to run again.

The hearing ended just as one member of the audience was nearly at the point of being thrown out, though Mayor Dean Murdock stopped short, as the session was wrapping up and people were about to disperse anyway.

“Our job is to listen and ensure that the council chambers is a safe and welcoming place for everyone,” Murdock said in an email to Black Press on Wednesday morning. “While the rules of procedure do allow the chair to remove anyone whose conduct is disruptive or inappropriate, I know it’s not going to come to that.”

He added that council has heard a range of perspectives, and has time to reflect on that before reconvening on May 7 to decide whether to proceed with the OCP as drafted.

READ MORE: Saanich OCP headed for public hearing, lines being drawn over tall buildings

About the Author: Mark Page

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