House losses worry residents

Councillor brings motion to explore preservation options

Oak Bay should do more to stem the flow of the municipality’s older homes being lost to demolition and relocation – losses that are changing the look and feel of the community, proponents say.

For Cairine Green, chair of Oak Bay’s Heritage Commission, real value exists in retaining local heritage, both for the character of a community and for practical implications such as the preservation of green space, affordable housing and environmental concerns.

“There’s a huge social value to heritage. (These homes) tell stories and they provide shelter for generations of families. It’s just amazing how much they contribute to social well-being,” says Green, a former Oak Bay councillor who served as council liaison to Oak Bay Heritage.

Last year, Oak Bay saw 23 homes demolished and six homes moved; this year’s numbers appear on par, says Roy Thomassen, Oak Bay’s Director of Building and Planning.

With Oak Bay property values high, the issue also raises questions about an individual’s right to do what they want with their own property, within the parameters of local bylaws.

“It’s the tension between property rights and heritage preservation,” Green says, acknowledging that “it’s true, not everything is worth saving.”

“I think change is a healthy thing and I think change can be well-managed through long-term planning,” Green says. “How you manage it is the key.”

Council is expected to discuss the issue at Monday’s council meeting, prompted by a notice of motion by Coun. Eric Zhelka.

Zhelka is asking council to request the Heritage Commission and the Advisory Planning Commission, with planning staff, explore planning and land use measures that address demolition and removal, “to pro-actively improve the retention of heritage registered and designated houses and character houses of heritage and historical value.”

The motion recognizes the district’s support for conservation through its 2013 Heritage Strategic Plan and the ongoing work of Heritage Oak Bay, however “efforts to raise public awareness and education about the significance of Oak Bay’s heritage and history, by themselves, cannot stem the current loss of Oak Bay housing through demolition and removal … losses (that) directly impact Oak Bay’s heritage, character, neighbourhood integrity, and housing accessibility.”

In addition to the recent loss of a prominent house on St. Patrick Street at Beach Drive – “one you thought was always going to be there” – Zhelka was spurred to action by a Globe and Mail story suggesting Oak Bay was losing its heritage. “That really was, for me, the line being crossed,” he says.

Zhelka commends Oak Bay CAO Helen Koning’s work to realign the municipality’s committees and commissions, and suggests expertise of staff and knowledgeable community volunteers might generate new ways to address the issue. “Maybe there’s some innovations we haven’t thought of,” he says.

While the home at St. Patrick Street and Beach Drive made a high-profile move to a family farm in Campbell River earlier this spring, a number of local homes moved in the last year now sit on San Juan Island, in Washington State.

The San Juan Community Home Trust purchased five homes from Oak Bay through Nickel Brothers house movers. The homes are part of a “pocket neighborhood” the Trust is developing in its mission to create permanently affordable housing for low- and moderate-income San Juan Island residents.

Here in Oak Bay, the losses due to moves or demolition have impacts beyond neighbourhood character, Green says.

Some older homes can provide a more affordable option in a community where housing is increasingly expensive, especially for younger families or those downsizing but wanting to stay in their community.

New construction can also bring a loss of green space, with new homes maximizing lot coverage with related loss of “greenery, trees and other natural assets,” Green says, adding it’s also possible to densify without losing character, through projects like heritage conversions.

“Heritage and the environment work really well together and they complement each other greatly.”

Oak Bay isn’t alone in losing some of its older properties. In response, some cities have created heritage conservation areas while others have adopted policies addressing the environmental impact.

Vancouver’s Green Demolition Plan requires anyone wanting to demolish a pre-1940 home to recycle or reuse 75 per cent of the waste; if the city considers it a character home, that number jumps to 90 per cent. Come January, coverage expands to pre-1950s homes, Green says, pointing as well to innovative Vancouver communities like Mole Hill, “a West End heritage community that provides community housing through heritage conservation of homes built in the 19th century.”

Richmond has similar waste regulations. Its demolition waste and recyclable materials bylaw aims to achieve at least 70 per cent diversion of construction waste and requires companies to file a reuse plan with building permit applications and a recycling and reuse compliance form post-demolition – required before the building permit is issued.

Across the border, Seattle requires a waste diversion plan when demolishing a structure, while  Portland issues a 35-day demolition delay following demolition applications to provide notice to neighbours.

Here in Oak Bay, residents’ feedback during development of 2013’s Heritage Strategic Plan identified several significant heritage values: established streetscapes and neighbourhoods (65 per cent of survey respondents); historic buildings and structures; cultural landscape features; natural landscape features and ecological heritage; and Oak Bay’s unique history.

“I’m certainly concerned that we’re losing …houses that could otherwise be saved or renovated,” says Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, adding he has asked staff to provide information as to the rate of loss over recent years. While a certain amount of turnover is expected, numbers would indicate if the loss is in fact increasing.

“Has there been an acceleration of late? What we need to figure out over the medium to long-term, is what has been the trend in this area,” Jensen says.

Since announcing his notice of motion, Zhelka says he’s received a flood of emails in support. “I’ve been very pleased with the response,” he says. “I hope we have the willpower and political leadership to come up with ideas.”

Green also sees positives to where the community is today. “Oak Bay, for the first time in its history, has a qualified urban planner on staff,” she notes.

“We still have time to manage this change. You can run out of time. We have time to get out in front of it. That would be my hope.”